On 28 September 2015, during a townhall meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, Prime Minister Narendra Modi dispensed advice to political leaders across the world,“Social media se bhagne se kuch hone wala nahi hai”—there is nothing to be gained by running away from social media.“Today, because of social media, governments are being stopped from committing mistakes,” he continued, “They are given a chance to fix mistakes.” While the prime minister’s commitment to social media remains indubitable, a public interest litigation has revealed that his enthusiasm for such platforms could prove to be a mistake that his government may soon be forced to fix.
At present, of the 52 ministries under the Indian government, at least 24 have a Facebook page, and 20, an account on Twitter. These include the ministries of external affairs, finance, railways, human resource development, and information and broadcasting. The Prime Minister’s office (PMO) operates its own Facebook and Twitter accounts, with close to 9 million and 8 million subscribers respectively. Both accounts bear Modi’s formidable gaze as their profile pictures, and both post photographs from the prime minister’s numerous public appearances along with regular updates that extol the various schemes introduced by his government. Given the manner in which social media has carved its space in mainstream public discourse, these accounts are often the subject of news and debate, serious or otherwise.
In June 2012—two years before the Bharatiya Janta Party came to power—KN Govindacharya, the former general secretary of the party, filed a petition with the Delhi High Court. Writ petition number 3672, which is still pending in the high court, attempted to investigate, among other things, the use of social media by the Indian government and the organisations that come under its purview. It questioned in particular, the nature of the agreements between social networking services and the government.
On 20 October, I had a brief conversation with Govindacharya over the phone. The idea for this petition, he told me, first took root when he heard about the Indian Mujahideen, a militant group, using social media and email to communicate with its members. “Technology is an instrument, and it can be used by either side. Precautions must be there—the cyber laws need to evolve. The government must shed its indifference and apathy, and take responsibility,” he said. To this end, Govindacharya’s petition demands that companies such as Google and Facebook set up servers in India, so that their content may be monitored and controlled from here. It also argues that social media companies should pay service tax for using data that belongs to Indians.
The petition goes on to contend that the “government is using the social media networks for official communication.” It raises questions pertaining to the “unlawful clauses of agreement entered into by the government,” with such networks, whereby they get the rights for commercial usage of data, leading to “illegal financial gains.”