New Delhi: The Modi government’s ambitious plan to set up a social media monitoring hub seems to have found few takers with the tender inviting bids for the project being extended for the fourth time.
Originally, the Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd (BECIL), a PSU under the information and broadcasting ministry, had called for submission of bids for supply of software for the project by 17 May.
The date was first extended to 24 May, then to 31 May, which later became 18 June. Now, the new date is 20 August.
According to official sources, only two firms responded when the first tender was floated for software that was supposed to be “designed and developed in India”, in line with Modi government’s ‘Make India’ initiative.
As the tender needed at least three or more companies to be in consideration to pass the financial bid, the exercise was dissolved.
Sources in the industry say that the tender was extended again to “loop in the new I&B secretary Amit Khare”.
However, ministry officials said Khare too, like critics of the project, doubts its validity and purpose.
Govt plans to listen to digital chatter
The bid document for the project — Social Media Communication Hub — clearly states that it requires “a technology platform to collect digital chatter from all core social media platforms as well as digital platforms”.
The tender further mentions that the “platform may be used to disseminate content and hence should support publishing features”.
The proposal says it requires the tool to be able to “listen to email”, and should be able to assist the government to tailor campaigns to target individuals to promote “positive” opinions and to neutralise “negative sentiments” about government schemes.
In addition to this, 716 district-wise SMEs are expected to conduct “social media publicity” campaign.
However, government sources admit that “no such software exists that can easily and legally hack into personal emails” and claim that the ministry has no intention to “read” or “listen to” emails considering such attempts would amount to hacking and would be entirely illegal”.
The sources also indicate that the government is looking for a software on the lines of TalkWalker, a social media analytics and monitoring platform or Meltwater, a media and social media monitoring software.
Protests against the project
The Internet Freedom Foundation, an NGO that advocates a “free and open internet”, served a legal notice on the I&B ministry last month, asking the government to recall the tender.
Apar Gupta, co-founder and trustee of the NGO, argued that there is no statutory instrument or legislation which can be used to justify the creation of the Social Media Communication Hub.
“The scope of the hub is supposed to fall under the government’s ‘New Media Cell’. However, the New Media Cell was set up by a notification in 2013, not a law, and the activities of the hub are beyond the scope of that notification as well,” he claimed.
Many influencers and politicians have also raised concerns that the project could invade an individual’s right to privacy, and the right to freedom of speech.
Trinamool Congress MLA from Karimpur in West Bengal, Mahua Moitra, has filed a PIL against the project.
Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi also questioned the Modi government on why the tender does not clarify if the data being accessed by the government will be encrypted. He also sought to know why the BJP government is “spending Rs 42 core of our own tax payer’s money to snoop on us”.