In my blog dated April 28, 2018, I had pointed out that the government was planning to introduce a chip in TV setup boxes to ostensibly monitor viewer preferences while watching TV programs. I had pointed out that this could also be a sinister design to invade the privacy of our homes and collect information about us without our knowledge or consent. Despite a lapse of time, no explanation has been forthcoming from the government.
In the last few days, the government has announced two more pernicious steps, the first on dealing with social media and fake news, and the second about allotment of services and cadres to newly-recruited civil servants. Let us look at both in some detail.
A small news item in only one of the many newspapers that I read every morning informed us recently that the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has decided to open a social media communication hub in all the 716 districts of the country in which it will employ people who will monitor online content. It may be recalled that much praise was showered on the Prime Minister when a similar move by the I&B ministry to identify and punish journalists who allegedly spread fake news was nipped in the bud by the Prime Minister's Office. Smriti Irani was shifted out of the I&B ministry though many believe she could not have taken a major step like this on her own. Be that as it may, the arrangement, which is now sought to be put in place under the stewardship of the new minister for I&B, appears to be far worse.
The new monitoring mechanism will be able to read, contextualize and respond to content in most Indian and foreign languages and will get a 360-degree view of customers by integrating customer relationship management data with social profiles. It will personalize responses on the basis of customers' loyalty and past behaviour and also help the ministry to identify 'influencers' with basic attributes like how many followers they have.
The entire program will be implemented through Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Limited (BECIL). The BECIL media hubs in every district will collect data relating to regional media and local events, monitor local news papers, cable channels, FM stations and important social media handles. They will also check the spread of fake and incorrect news and information, conduct perception analysis of various events and generate at least six reports per day for the ministry.
A social media analytical tool will be devised to collect digital media chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms like blogs and forums along with proprietary mobile insights platforms which will enable real-time insights and other valuable data through a single system. The ministry expects to improve the perception of India in the world through this mechanism and give a positive slant to social media and Internet news.
From the above description, it is quite clear that the ministry would not only keep track of all that is happening in the media and social media at the local level, but would also be able to monitor content. Obviously, anything which is adverse to the government will immediately come to its notice and also enable it to take punitive action against such elements in the media or social media. On the very face of it, it looks dangerous in the extreme, as the government will be monitoring all our actions and even future thoughts. Is this the role the state should play? Or the duty the government should perform? It calls for immediate scrutiny, debate and action by thinking citizens.
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