India debates linking social media accounts to government IDs

Activists are seeking to ensure that government identity documents are either linked to social media accounts, or used to verify user identities.
Activists are seeking to ensure that government identity documents are either linked to social media accounts, or used to verify user identities.PHOTO: ST FILE

NEW DELHI - An ongoing case in India's Supreme Court on how to prevent misuse of social media has generated a debate between those who seek to protect individual privacy as well as freedom of speech and those demanding greater control measures to track down anonymous accounts that propagate hate and fake news online.

The move is being debated in the context of a transfer petition by Facebook at the Supreme Court (SC) where it has asked the top court to adjudicate on a clutch of petitions being heard at different High Courts seeking greater accountability from social media platforms, including through linkage of a user's biometrics or government identity cards.

One of these cases was filed at the High Court in Chennai last year by Mr Antony Clement Rubin, an animal rights activist based in Tamil Nadu. He petitioned the court asking for an individual's government identity document to be linked with his or her social media accounts as well as utility services like Uber to prevent their abuse.

Mr Amitabha Gupta, an advocate based in Bilaspur, also filed a similar petition in July this year at the High Court in Madhya Pradesh seeking to ensure that social media platforms verify the identity of their users through a government identity document such as the Aadhaar. It is a 12-digit unique identity number given to residents of India, based on their biometric and other details.

Mr Rubin filed the petition after being villified on Facebook by anonymous page following his public opposition to Jallikattu - a bull-grabbing sport that many see as an intrinsic part of Tamil culture.

Speaking to The Straits Times, Mr Rubin said he faced abusive, derogatory comments that relied on fake news and was even subject to physical threats. When he reported this to Facebook, he was told it did not violate their community standards, which led him to file a police complaint, asking them to find the perpetrator. The police, however, failed to receive a response from Facebook that would allow them to identify the anonymous attacker.

Mr Rubin says it is this lack of accountability that social media giants demonstrate which pushed him to file the public interest litigation. "My point is simply that if the likes of Facebook and Twitter are going to be in India, they have to be responsive to the law of the land and help the agencies trace the originators of these posts," he added.

He said victims also needed redress.

Mr Rubin said he does not buy the argument that such a move will curb free speech or stifle dissent. "People who protest and dissent will do so any which way. It is not that social media is the only platform for dissent, people have been dissenting from time immemorial. Social media is just a recent phenomenon," he argued.


India's Supreme Court had in August 2017 ruled that privacy is integral to the right to life and personal liberty laid out in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Article 21 is one of the articles that guarantees fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution. That privacy can still be compromised troubles many.

Asked what the middle ground can there be to this contentious issue, Mr Apar Gupta, the executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF), said "the idea of a middle ground presumes that fundamental rights are an extreme". "The fundamental rights under the Indian Constitution are actually the middle ground. It is the third chapter of the Indian Constitution for a reason, it has that primacy," he told The Straits Times.

While the High Court in Chennai has discounted the possibility of linking Aadhaar with social media accounts in its observations, it remains a possibility till a final judgement is arrived at.

A move asking Indians to link their mobile phones with Aadhaar was struck down by the top court last year and made voluntary instead. The Aadhaar database is meant for availing government benefits and should not be open to private use, the Supreme Court had also ruled.

"There is an incredible amount of danger of profiling and surveillance if private operators can use Aadhaar for commercial profits," Mr Gupta said, detailing how access to biometrics will make it much easier for private firms to create an overarching profile of a user that can stretch across different platforms.

He also argued that the restrictions being asked for by the petitioners go beyond the reasonable restrictions that can be placed on freedom of speech.

"I would say the middle ground is actually having a system in which individualised prosecution is done rather than such radical solutions (such as linking one's social media account to his or her biometric details)." The IFF is an intervenor in the case at the High Court in Chennai.

While agreeing that social media platforms need greater regulatory oversight, he pointed out that notices issued to these firms by the government are often made frivolously and have little legal sanctity, which in turn holds up responses from social media platforms.

The next hearing in the case is on Oct 22 and the Indian government has been asked to file an affidavit on the status of guidelines to regulate internet intermediaries.