“Volunteers without guns”: J-K police to create civilian network to report “anti-national content” on Internet

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The Jammu and Kashmir Police on Wednesday started the registration of private citizens as volunteers to police the internet and report alleged cybercrimes to the government, it announced in a press release.

The volunteer scheme provides for three categories of volunteers, including “Unlawful Content Flaggers”, who according to the police will play a role in “identifying online illegal/unlawful content like child pornography, rape/gang rape, terrorism, radicalization, anti-national activities.”

The programme being implemented has renewed concerns of deteriorating freedom of speech in Kashmir, already reeling under intense government scrutiny since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy and statehood on 5 August 2019.

Habeel Iqbal, a south Kashmir based lawyer who practices in the Shopian District Court, said that “scheme seemed to be a reincarnation” of the now repealed Section 66A of the Information Technology Act that allowed for punitive action for perceived offences in online speech. “This is like bringing 66A through another door, through the window now,” he said. “The whole purpose is to arrest you for social media posts.”

“In law this is called a colourable legislation,” Iqbal said of the scheme. “There is a maxim in law, what you can’t do directly, you can’t do indirectly as well. Any scheme has to derive authority and power from some act. I am not sure where does this scheme derive its power, sanction and authority, from? … I am sure if it is challenged in the court of law, it will not stand.”

Ecosystem of eyes

The scheme launched by the J-K police is in fact a pan-India programme launched by the Ministry of Home Affairs under the Indian Cyber Crime Coordination Centre, to establish a network of private citizen volunteers across the country to flag alleged cyber crimes by fellow citizens.

Named the Cyber Crime Volunteers Program, the network is designed as a centralised platform — an “ecosystem” for “citizens with passion to serve the nation” — to monitor other citizen’s online activities “in a coordinated and comprehensive manner.”

According to the MHA’s National Cyber Crime Reporting Portal’s official website, the programme is also open to individuals “who are willing to volunteer in any other area that can help in fighting cybercrime.”

Applications to the programme will be received by the regional nodal offices — in Jammu and Kashmir’s case, the Inspector General of Police of the Crime Branch — who will in-turn “contact the applicants on an as-needed basis.”

Under the programme, the MHA is calling upon “Good Samaritans”, any Indian citizen, to opt for one of three types of “Cyber Crime Volunteers” — “Unlawful Content Flaggers”, “Cyber Awareness Promoter”, and “Cyber Expert” — “for facilitating law enforcement agencies in identifying, reporting and removal of illegal/unlawful online content.”

Unlawful content is broadly defined as “content that violates any law in force in India” under the broad categories: “Against sovereignty and integrity of India; Against defence of India; Against Security of the State; Against friendly relations with foreign States; Content aimed at disturbing Public Order; Disturbing communal harmony; Child Sex Abuse material.”

 “Unlawful Content Flaggers”

According to the official website, an important objective of the volunteer programme “is to create an ecosystem that brings together academia, industry, public and government in prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of cybercrimes.”

States and union territories will conduct verification of applicants opting for the role of “Cyber Awareness Promoter”, tasked with sensitising the public on cybercrime, and “Cyber Expert”, tasked with network forensics and memory analysis among others.

However, the ministry will conduct no prior verification of applicants opting for the role of “Unlawful Content Flagger”, private citizens whose primary role is to police the internet for the activity of fellow citizens.

The unlawful content stated to be “radicalisation and anti-national activities”, however, don’t have a legal definition. “Radicalisation is not defined under the law. Anti-national activity, too, is also not defined as such,” said Iqbal, the lawyer.

Like with any other provision of the law pertaining to state security, Iqbal said the use was more frequent and broad in Kashmir than other regions. “Even for the [ongoing] farmer protests [in New Delhi], they [farmers] will be declared anti-nationals,” he said. “But obviously in Kashmir definition of an anti-national activity will be broader and over generalised… I am sure this will be the thing with this scheme also.”

He raised concerns over citizens willing to volunteer under the scheme. “They will be volunteers without guns,” he said, adding that “we don’t say that the scheme will be misused. They [authorities] will be using the scheme. This is the actual scheme — to hound anyone who talks against government policies and police brutalities.”

To register as a volunteer, an Indian citizen needs to only upload their resume, identity papers, residence proof, and a photograph. The volunteers, however, are not allowed to disclose their affiliation with the programme, or the MHA, the nature of tasks assigned to or carried out by them, and to “pursue discussion or share his/her work or express opinions on public platforms on behalf of this program.”

Srinagar-based lawyer Shariq Reyaz said that though the law permitted citizens to inform authorities of any violation of the law, “this has to be seen from the perspective of how much does it violate the right of privacy and that would require examination because it’s too early to come to a conclusion.”

The MHA has also “advised” volunteers to study the Indian Constitution’s Article 19 — pertaining to freedom of speech, and its limitations.

“Given the way the establishment has worked in the past, it raises eyebrows there is no doubt about that. And there is an element of people now watching you more keenly and closely, and it may [breach] privacy,” said Reyaz, adding that right to privacy didn’t give “a blanket protection against the commission of offence. So it has to be balanced like that.

‘Altering societal interactions’

As per the stated procedure, the programme will rely on unverified information from unvetted flaggers. Given the country’s deep faultlines and frequent instances of mob violence over alleged “anti-national” and offensive activities, the role of such a centralised volunteer network raises serious questions over citizens’ safety and privacy.

Geeta Seshu of the Free Speech Collective said that the volunteer programme is akin to “outsourcing of policing to citizens” and “a very dangerous move and reminiscent of what was done in Nazi Germany where citizens reported on one another.”

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led Government of India, said Seshu, would “completely alter” interactions within the society. “We have already seen them [BJP] using the means of shock and awe… techniques of fear [and] now this technique of mistrust and suspicion is being sought to be instilled in every single citizen.”

Already, as per the MHA, nine federal intelligence agencies and one state agency was allowed to intercept and monitor telephone conversations under federal laws. According to the New Delhi-based Software Freedom Law Centre, there were dedicated systems in place as well, such as the Central Monitoring System (CMS) and the National Intelligence Grid (NATGRID) with a third system, Network Traffic Analysis (NETRA), “rumoured to be launched in 2014”.

“This step, by bringing citizens to actually monitor each other, they are taking the level of surveillance to a very different level,” said Seshu. “Already the situation is such that people take offence at social media posts… now this is kind of sanctioning… will lead to a horrendous situation.”

Seshu said that a programme of this nature is “unjustifiable” and “unacceptable” in a democracy. “There are huge fissures in our society, instead of dealing with that they [BJP] are criminalising people who speak out and deviate anywhere from the norm,” she said. “That question of what is the norm and deviation, they expect they will lay down and have citizens recruited to further that. So, it is really a very dangerous situation.”

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