The Madras HC allows our intervention in the Aadhaar and Social Medial linking petition.

Highlights

  • Background: Two writ petitions were filed in the Madras High Court in July 2018 praying for the interlinking of Aadhaar with social media for identity authentication purposes. We were deeply concerned with this development and decided to intervene.
  • Intervention time: Given the relevance of these cases, IFF goes to Court for the 6th time, continuing its fight for the right to privacy of the citizens of ┬áIndia, amongst various other concerns. Our stand in court is to protect user privacy, prevent surveillance but also to address the harms and regulatory issues such as end-to-end encryption which are of concern to the Hon'ble Court. Rest assured, all our submissions are to advance digital rights and the constitutional values!

/ Why we decided to intervene.

Information is necessary for a well functioning society. However, it also carries power and creates social structures. For instance social media while making sure all of us remain connected is no longer merely a way to stay in touch. It has become a way of life and permits a wider functionality. This also carries risks and harms. Many social media platforms today are rife with abuse, misinformation and illegal content. It is undermining the demos of Indian democracy. A solution which has been posed in the Madras High Court is linking the real world identities (government ID's such as Aadhaar) with social media accounts.

Concerned by these developments, in early June, 2019, we filed two interventions in Antony Clement Rubin v. Union of India & Ors (W.P. No. 20774/2018) and Janani Krishnamurthy v. Union of India (W.P. No. 20214/2018). This is in our continuing work in approaching and assisting courts all over India in matters related to technology and fundamental rights. In the hearing today, our intervention application was accepted by the Hon'ble High Court of Madras. We thank our counsels Arun Karthik Mohan and Suhrith Parthasarathy for their representation.

// Why linking Aadhaar to social media is terrible.

Aadhaar being linked with our social media accounts? Here's why we think this would result in a terrible outcome.

  • Increased power of social media companies over users: It would undermine the right to privacy in several ways. At present we can only visualise a few, and as we very well know with technology based policy interventions, the outcomes are often much worse and the threats only multiple when user rights are not considered at the outset. For instance, it would allow social media companies to gather deeper, more granular information about their users. A government ID, especially one such as Aadhaar which has a common identifier would permit them to link the personal data on the social media platform more easily. This would result in more pervasive dossiers of social media users available to the highest bidder who can serve us then with ads across platforms. Not to mention it would also increase the harms to speech by chilling dissenting voices.
  • Troubling legality: This also becomes troubling neatly on the legality of the proposal. As per us, the private use of Aadhaar remains problematic as indicated by the Hon'ble Supreme Court. This becomes incredibly dangerous when it is mandatorily linked to our social media accounts. All this is happening while we are still governed by deficient safeguards, that were devised for telephone tapping applied to digital surveillance by the government. In a related matter to reform the safeguards for government surveillance (which is at present occurring without any judicial oversight) we have made a constitutional challenge through a petition in the Supreme Court of India by filing Internet Freedom Foundation v. Union of India (W.P. (C). No. 44/2019) [Soon coming up for hearing on July 2, 2019].
  • Increased risk to minors and women: Linking real world identities may counter intuitively also contribute to the spreading of misinformation, abuse and threats which not only result in a direct attack against our democracy but also allows for individualised harms which more often come through to women and children. Women (other persons as well, especially individuals from vulnerable groups) in India quite often have adopted pseudonyms on social media to avoid censure from family, acquaintances or wider social judgement. Linking their Aadhaar to their social media accounts would tremendously increase informational risks even rising to the level of threats to their physical security.

/// A short statement on today's developments

IFF's executive director, Apar Gupta stated that, "We are grateful to the Hon'ble Madras High Court for permitting us to make submissions given the vexed issues of Aadhaar and social media linking. This was possible due to the submissions of our counsel Suhrith Parthasarthy who is advising and representing us in this case. He also indicated the larger issues before the court on which we plan to engage in future hearings. Given the pervasive use of social media in our lives and the existing tools to harvest and utilise data for marketing purposes, not to mention, individualised advertisements, the entire gathering of personal data itself has been a constant cause for concern in the law few years. Adding Aadhaar to this cocktail for the purpose of verification of identity would arguably create further harm. This case also concerns issues of online abuse, misinformation which can contribute to challenges to social order and when law enforcement is deficient, even violence. Hence, the Hon'ble Court has also in recent hearings been considering issues of intermediary liability and end-to-end encryption. On all these issues, IFF's staff will work with care to ensure submissions are made to safeguard and protect the digital rights of every social media user in India."

In continuance with IFF's mission -- we will keep approaching courts in a systematic and planned manner to ensure the protection of the fundamental rights of every India.

Transparency is a hallmark in all of IFF's work. Hence, as with all our filed case pleadings even a copy of the intervention application is made public and is available in the link below. The next date for hearing in this case is July 26, 2019.

Important documents

  • Intervention Application (W.M.P No. 16726 of 2019) (link) in Antony Clement Rubin v. Union of India & Ors (W.P. No. 20774/2018) (link)
  • Intervention Application (WMP No. 16663 of 2019) (link) in Janani Krishnamurthy v. Union of India (W.P. No. 20214/2018) (link)
  • Last order by the Hon'ble Madras High Court on October 31, 2018 (link); Order of the Hon'ble Madras High Court on June 27, 2019 (currently unavailable).

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