Policing through social media, or policing the medium. Amid the hoopla, too many cases of illegal censorship, coercion and surveillance are being ignored.

Flix Monday, March 02, 2015 - 05:30
By Saurav Datta February 22, 2015| 12.00 pm IST Police-citizen “connect” through social media, and even policing over social media, seems to be the latest fad, and Bengaluru police has become its poster boy. FIRs and complaints over Facebook seem to be the new normal in policing practices, and they have been lapped up with great enthusiasm by both the citizenry and the media.  But a 20 January Supreme Court ruling could well burst this bubble of euphoria, and rightly so. Because policing through social media is a double-edged sword, which is made sharper by certain provisions of the Information Technology Act. And ironically, it was Bangalore Police which earned a sharp reprimand from the court. Manik Taneja couldn’t have imagined that posting a complaint on the Bangalore Traffic Police’s Facebook page would invite such consequences. Harassed and threatened by an inspector, Taneja took recourse to a measure which the police itself had been encouraging- that citizens must voice their grievances in public, on the social media platforms. But the police retaliated with an FIR. Apparently, the Facebook complaint and a subsequent email to the higher-ups amounted to criminal intimidation of a police officer! And since this “threat” was made over Facebook, applying the now notorious Section 66A of the Information Technology (IT) Act was the automatic next step.  Worse, the High Court refused to intervene, and taking the police’s side, said that the “offence” in question must be investigated. Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled in Taneja’s favour. However, the larger, and more pressing question goes abegging- does the police have a clean slate when it comes to using social media? Are illegal, and in some cases, possibly unethical practices going unnoticed and consequently, unpunished? At the very outset, let’s be clear- the police are determined not to relinquish control, and the government sees nothing wrong in this. That’s why, on 4 February, in course of the hearing on the constitutional validity of Sec 66A, ASG Tushar Mehta unhesitatingly told the Supreme Court that the men in khaki- the SHOs (Station House Officers) and other personnel would be the first arbiter of what counts as “derogatory” or “grossly offensive” statements and therefore liable for criminal prosecution. Also significant is the fact that the men in uniform don’t take too kindly to criticism.  After vindictiveness, comes negative “competitiveness”- the zeal to steal a march over other police forces. A very recent example is the Pune police. After their Mumbai counterparts registered multiple FIRs against All India Bakchod for possible vulgarity and obscenity, a Deputy Commissioner of Police cited the borderless Internet and the IT Act to pursue a criminal investigation, not only against the actors in that particular show, but even YouTube, for hosting the video ! And then of course, is the most worrying issue- brazen misuse of the provisions of the IT Act. Last year, a Senior Advocate representing some people accused of acts of terrorism gives an interview to TwoCircles.net, a news website. In that, he accuses the Mumbai and Pune police of falsely implicating innocents and also says that the Maharashtra ATS (Anti-Terrorism Squad) is getting the underworld to coerce him into silence. In normal course, what should the police do? Investigate the allegations of threats, for after all, it isn’t the first time lawyers representing terror-accused have been killed by “mysterious people”.  Remember Shahid Azmi, whose killers still remain untraced? But instead of that, Mumbai Police went hammer and tongs after the news site, threatening them with criminal charges (invoking the IT Act, again.) unless they took down the interview. Besides being an obvious assault on the freedom of the press, it also hinted at possible culpability of the police.  In January, Mumbai Police’s Social Media Lab, established in 2013, patted itself on the back for scotching rumours which could have set off communal clashes. This was achieved by maintaining a hawk’s eye on Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, and clamping down immediately on anyone who could be remotely suspected of mischief.   As usual, this cell (about which there is almost no information in the public domain) claimed it had the powers under the IT Act.  Definitely, with regard to Facebook and Twitter. But surely not for WhatsApp, as tracking that is equivalent to tapping a phone, which is governed by an entirely different legal regime. It is the Indian Telegraph Act and the Rules which allow certain agencies to mount surveillance over landline and mobile phone networks, and certainly not only the IT Act. A 2010 India Today cover story provides useful insights into how phone-tapping ought to work within the legal framework. Only seven agencies are permitted, that too only under certain restrictive conditions. The Social Media Lab is not even authorised to launch surveillance on phones- at least, there is no government order vesting it with such powers. Then why are they getting away with illegality?  Undoubtedly, social media is a handy tool in good policing, but when there are rampant cases of misuse and illegalities, and almost nil accountability, one is compelled to be skeptical, and suspicious.  Tweet