- In a 66-page document that reads like a wish list from the Orwellian state of 1984, the tender invited proposals from private players to build and operate a 24x7 "social media communication hub" manned by operators (including 20 for a core team in Delhi and one for each of India's 716 districts) that is able to watch over and intervene on social media and email.
- The government wants the "analytical tool" to "perform like [a] search engine" and "provide reports on sentiment, reach, details related to trending about topics and hashtags as instructed by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting".
- Then comes the content manipulation clause. The government wants suggestions on "how could public perception be moulded in positive manner for the country" and "how could nationalistic feelings be inculcated in the masses". The tool should also be able to make certain topics trend on social media.
- The government's proposal also includes a segment for the media. It wants the tool to identify stories that the government deems as "fake news", predict "headlines and breaking news of various channels and newspapers across the globe" and gauge "what would be the global public perception due to such headlines and breaking news".
- The government's move comes in the middle of a fierce global debate about data privacy sparked by the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked Facebook this year, revealing how personal information was used to influence political campaigns without the consent of users.
- It also goes against a larger international trend in liberal societies to give people more control over how their data is held. On Friday, the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), billed as the biggest shake-up of data privacy laws since the birth of the web and the largest change in data protection law in Europe for more than 20 years, came into effect.
- It gives EU citizens more control over how their personal data are stored and used. Companies breaching the new rules on how they handle people's data could incur fines of up to 4 per cent of their annual revenue.
- As details of the centre's plans emerged in news reports, leaders from opposition parties called it a violation of consent and said data could be misused for electoral purposes. "The BJP government's addiction to snooping is reaching dangerous levels. They will misuse this tool to shape the narrative, influence the voters, to adopt unethical and unfair means to grab democracy rather than earn the trust. This government can't be trusted with such a lethal weapon," Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said.
- Senior officials in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, including Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, were not immediately available for comment.
- One official on the condition of anonymity said that only publicly available data on social media would be crawled and tracking emails were not a part of the plan.
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