Social Media Police Lab in Mumbai
Just this past weekend, police in India's tinseltown, Mumbai, inaugurated the country's first social media lab. The lab will be used to monitor content from Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. A team of 20 police officers will analyze the data from the social networking sites. The police officers have been trained by Google engineers for the past several months and reports generated by the lab will be shared with police across the country. Search engines like Google and Bing are linked to the lab’s system and keywords will be fed in on a daily basis. Based on these keywords, the search engines will give results every minute.
Reported in The Hindu, the purpose of the social media lab is to better understand what people are discussing online and to help the police prepare for situations that may arise. The Mumbai Police Commissioner also stated in the article that the protest at India Gate relating to the gang rape in Delhi was mainly fueled by discussions happening on social media sites. Learning from that, he explained that traditional sources of information do not always give the right picture of societal needs and misgivings. In The Hindu, the Commissioner was reportedly quoted as saying, “Till now, we haven’t ever tried to understand what is happening on the Internet, but now is the time to change that.” The project is backed by the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) and is funded by Reliance Foundation.
Although the Commissioner stated the aim of the lab better understand what people are discussing, an article published by TheNextWhat stated how it may cause fears that the privacy of citizens will be intruded and freedom of speech on the Internet will be inhibited. The article explains that people may be afraid after several instances that have taken place within the last year. According to The Times of India, in November two women from Mumbai were arrested by police after one posted a comment on Facebook opposing the Mumbai shutdown following the death of the Chief of the Hindu radical Shiv Sena party, Bal Thackeray, and the other women liked the comment. A similar incident was also reported in The Hindu that involved two Air India employees. The police arrested the two men at their house for comments they posted on a social media platform. The two were jailed for several days. According to The Hindu, the men were arrested under section 66-A of the IT act.
Section 66-A of the IT act involves sending of offensive messages through communication services. However, according to The Hindustan Times, the Act has been reportedly criticized by lawyers since it was added as an amendment to the original IT Act of 2000. Lawyer Flavia Agnes has reportedly said that the section is in conflict with freedom of expression and is not well defined. Offenses against section 66-A of the IT act are non-bailable and punishable up to three years in jail.
Reported in The Hindu, at the lab's inauguration the Commissioner said the purpose of the 24x7 lab was to understand discussions of various subjects and not to invoke censorship on them. The Mumbai Police also clarified that the lab would not interfere with any privacy policies of social networking sites. Also supporting this stance was Bollywood actor, Abhishek Bachchan, who was also present at the inauguration. According to ANINews, Bachchan reportedly stated that no censorship of any kind was going to happen and he didn't think they would be censoring any tweets or Facebook post.
With the number of social media users in urban India expected to reach 66 million by June this year, analyzing trends in discussions may indeed be useful for the Mumbai police as they explained. However, in my opinion it may be difficult for the India public to embrace the new lab with open arms given recent arrests made under Section 66A of the IT act. Whatever the case may be, if the police are analyzing the data well, I'm sure they will know what people are saying about the first social media lab. In the coming weeks it will be interesting to see how the India public feels about this new lab and whether they feel it invades their freedom of expression or not.
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