In 2017, at the height of Tamil Nadu’s now-infamous Jallikattu protests, a Chennai-based animal activist named Antony Clement Rubin bore the ignominy of having to endure a smear campaign on Facebook. Rubin’s pronounced anti-Jallikattu stance and work in animal welfare, won him brickbats from multiple Facebook pages across Tamil Nadu that took exception to his views. From abusive text messages, comments and cyber-bullying, he dealt with much of it until things got out of hand.
“When I was cyber-bullied, the police told me it would take two years to get a reply from Facebook,” says Rubin, speaking to CNBC-TV18, “I had no other option but to go to the police since Facebook does not consider derogatory terms as a violation of community guidelines. And that is a problem.” But with little help from law enforcement, he was forced to take the matter up in the Madras High Court last year, filing a PIL (public interest litigation) to have all social media users in India, to link social media accounts with their respective Aadhar cards. Another victim of cyber-bullying, animal activist Janani Krishnamurthy, filed a second PIL, both plaintiffs pleading that the court rule in favour of linkage.
Rubin and Janani aren’t alone. Aside of the Madras High Court, the Bombay and Madhya Pradesh High Courts have also been hearing similar petitions. This caused social media giant — and one of the defendants in these cases — Facebook to move the Supreme Court, petitioning transfer of all these cases to the apex court. The Supreme Court will take that petition up for hearing, on Tuesday.
“When I was harassed online, it didn’t just affect my work but my personal life as well,” says Janani, speaking to CNBC-TV18. She adds that when she was cyber-bullied in 2017, she initially considered filing a defamation case. “But when it’s online, you can’t nail down one person with defamation, because there’s no accountability for what goes on a social media account. The blame is usually shifts to an admin who apparently handles an account,” says Janani, “There is nothing wrong with connecting your social media account to Aadhar card, since it makes it easier for government and law-enforcement agencies to track down perpetrators who engage in cyber-bullying.”
Interestingly enough, the Government of India has sided with the petitioners in these cases. Appearing on behalf of the Government, Attorney General KK Venugopal told the Supreme Court that linkage of social media accounts with Aadhar could curb “anti-social” messages on WhatsApp and Facebook. It isn’t the first time, incidentally, that the Indian Government has called for traceability and decryption of Indian social media accounts.
The influx of petitions from plaintiffs like Rubin and Janani, and strong government support for their pleas has social media experts worried. “If I am critical of anything that the government says or does tomorrow, I know that I can easily be attacked or targeted in any way since my personal data would be linked to my social media account,” says blogger and social media expert, Kiruba Shankar, “That is an inherent infringement of right to free speech. While I understand that this is a good way to avoid cyber bullying, it could be a case of burning the house down to kill the rats.”
Much of the outrage against the call to link social media with biometric data is to do with the perception that social media is the last stand for free speech. “Television is getting increasingly biased, radio and newspapers are also owned by corporations. So, the only place people can be voice truly voice their thoughts is social media,” says Shankar, who believes that a privacy clampdown could be conducted in the garb of preventing cyber-bullying. “But the fact that traceability and decryption could well turn into a sword hanging over the heads of social media users for saying anything critical about the government is extremely sad,” he adds.
Legal voices maintain that the courts will end up walking a fine line between personal security online, and social media user-privacy. “While privacy is a basic fundamental right for everybody in the country, the onus should be on social media websites to increase security measures if and when they collect user data,” says legal expert, K Satish Kumar, who believes judicial intervention could be crucial to weeding out fake profiles and defamatory content, online.
For the moment, however, plaintiffs in the case are firm that personal security online is paramount. “As a victim of cyberbullying, I cannot be expected to take a bullet just because you value your privacy. Claiming that privacy matters and decryption will not be possible means you’re only protecting perpetrators of cyber-bullying,” says Rubin who adds that decryption need not necessarily mean total annihilation of privacy. “A model wherein only abusive text messages can be in a position to be decrypted by WhatsApp on request of the police would preserve privacy and aid security,” he adds.Come Tuesday, even as action shifts to the Supreme Court, the debate between privacy and security does not seem like it will die down anytime soon. The moot point however, is whether enhanced security measures could lead to a privacy clampdown. Opinions on that front, for now, remain just as divided.