SC to hear pleas to link social media accounts with Aadhaar
21 August 2019
A Supreme Court has agreed to take over petitions filed in three sate high courts – in Madras (Tamil Nadu), Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) and Mumbai (Maharashtra), by activists seeking a link-up of Aadhaar numbers to social media accounts.
A Supreme Court bench led by Justice Deepak Gupta issued notices to Centre and the Tamil Nadu government, while fixing 13 September for the next date of hearing. The bench, however, refused to put on hold the hearings in the high courts, but said that they should not pass a final order on the matter.
The petition was moved by social media company Facebook, which urged the top court to take over petitions in three high courts – Madras (Tamil Nadu), Madhya Pradesh and Bombay (Maharashtra).
All three petitions, filed by social activists, relate to demands to link Aadhaar or other government-issued identity documents with internet-based services such as social media, instant communication and emails or track messages - a move to take on the so called “dark web” where anti-socials and anti-nationals rule the roost.
The most prominent among the three HC cases is the one in Tamil Nadu, where recent hearings have focused on whether or not it is technically possible for service providers to trace messages in order to curb illegal content.
Union government representatives, while agreeing “in-principle” to the suggestion of making Aadhaar mandatory for sign-ups on social media, however, said a final decision would be taken after a thorough examination of all aspects.
The apex court has been told that linking of government-backed Ids would be appropriate for checking “anti-national”, fake, defamatory and pornographic content online.
The Tamil Nadu government, which on Monday said it backed the idea to make social media users authenticate using government-issued ID, opposed Facebook’s plea to move the hearing to the Supreme Court.
Attorney General KK Venugopal, representing Tamil Nadu, said the matter was heard 18 times by the HC and it would not be appropriate to transfer it at this stage. He said the SC should give the lower the opportunity to give its final view on an issue raised before it.
He also accused Facebook, which owns popular communication tool WhatsApp, of trying to pre-empt the hearings since the judges had agreed to seek an IIT professor’s opinion on how to trace the originator of a WhatsApp message. The next hearing in the Madras HC was scheduled for Wednesday.
Venugopal said the Tamil Nadu case was not about linking Aadhaar with social media platforms but related to the larger issue of how to curb circulation of fake news and messages. He said, in order to maintain law-and-order it was necessary to know who creates and circulates fake message. He cited the instance of Blue Whale game that led to youngsters committing suicide in India. “And till date we are struggling to find out who the source of this game was,” he told the court.
A bench of Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Ghose expressed concern over the dangers of the dark web. “Though I do not know how to access it, I have heard about the dark goings-on in the dark web. It is worse than what happens [in the service web],” Justice Gupta expressed the court's consternation.
The SC bench, however, made it clear it was not going into the merits of the case but would restrict itself to the issue of transferring the petitions to SC.
“There is a conflict between privacy and how the government should run the country when crimes are committed. There has to be a balance... under what condition information can be given and to whom,” the court pointed out.
“Any forced mandate to link social media would be unconstitutional, looking at the Supreme Court’s own Aadhaar judgment. It is also a policy not in line with international standards on privacy, and has been removed even in other democracies that experimented with it, including South Korea” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, co-founder of advocacy group Internet Freedom Foundation, which has intervened in the PIL in Madras HC.
Social media companies have said such demands run in contrast with their global principles of offering end-to-end encryption to all users (which means messages cannot be traced in the interest of privacy), while activists have said that accepting such proposals will run afoul of constitutional safeguards on privacy and lead to diminished freedom of speech online.
Representatives of social media companies said they have been training both central as well as state government institutions on how to seek information from them. They also said they have already limited the number of times a message can be sent and forwarded, but said maintaining law and order is the responsibility of the larger society.
Social media activists say forcing social media platforms to make messages traceable will undermine freedom of speech on the internet.