The Madras High Court has been hearing a PIL petition since 2018 that initially asked the court to declare the linking of Aadhaar with a government identity proof as mandatory for registering email and social media accounts. The petitioners, victims of online bullying, went to the court because they found that law enforcement agencies were inefficient at investigating cybercrimes, especially when it came to gathering information about pseudonymous accounts on major online platforms. This case brings out some of the most odious trends in policymaking in India.
The first issue is how the courts, as Anuj Bhuwania has argued in the book Courting the People , have continually expanded the scope of issues considered in PILs. In this case, it is absolutely clear that the court is not pondering about any question of law. In what could be considered as abrogation of the separation of powers provision in the Constitution, the Madras High Court started to deliberate on a policy question with a wide-ranging impact: Should Aadhaar be linked with social media accounts?
After ruling out this possibility, it went on to consider a question that is even further out of its purview: Should platforms like WhatsApp that provide encrypted services allow forms of “traceability” to enable finding the originator of content? In essence, the court is now trying to regulate one particular platform on a very specific technical question, ignoring legal frameworks entirely. It is worrying that the judiciary is finding itself increasingly at ease with deliberations on policy and regulatory measures, and its recent actions remind us that the powers of the court also deserve critical questioning.
Second, not only are governments failing to assert their own powers of regulation in response to the courts’ actions, they are on the contrary encouraging such PILs. The Attorney General, K.K. Venugopal, who is representing the State of Tamil Nadu in the case, could have argued for the case’s dismissal by referring to the fact that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has already published draft regulations that aim to introduce “traceability” and to increase obligations on social media platforms. Instead, he has largely urged the court to pass regulatory orders.
Third, ‘Aadhaar linking’ is becoming increasingly a refrain whenever any matter even loosely related to identification or investigation of crime is brought up. While the Madras High Court has ruled out such linking for social media platforms, other High Courts are still hearing petitions to formulate such rules. The processes that law enforcement agencies use to get information from platforms based in foreign jurisdictions rely on international agreements. Linking Aadhaar with social media accounts will have no bearing on these processes. Hence, the proposed ‘solution’ misses the problem entirely, and comes with its own threats of infringing privacy.
Problems of investigation
That said, investigating cybercrime is a serious problem for law enforcement agencies. However, the proceedings before the court indicate that the cause of the issues have not been correctly identified. While legal provisions that allow agencies to seek information from online platforms already exist in the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Information Technology Act, getting this information from platforms based in foreign jurisdictions can be a long and cumbersome process. For instance, the hurdles posed by the mutual legal assistance treaty between India and the U.S. effectively mean that it might take months to receive a response to information requests sent to U.S.-based platforms, if a response is received at all.
To make cybercrime investigation easier, the Indian government has various options. India should push for fairer executive agreements possible under instruments like the United States’ CLOUD Act, for which we need to first bring our surveillance laws in line with international human rights standards through reforms such as judicial oversight. India could use the threat of data localisation as a leverage to negotiate bilateral agreements with other countries to ensure that agencies have recourse to quicker procedures. As a first step, however, Indian courts must wash their hands of such questions. For its part, the Centre must engage in consultative policymaking around these important issues, rather than support ad-hoc regulation through court orders in PILs.
( Disclosure: The CIS is a recipient of research grants from Facebook. )
Gurshabad Grover is a senior policy officer at the Centre for Internet and Society. Views are personal