When an army officer went to court challenging the ban on the use of social media, it raised important questions about freedom of expression
Delete your social media accounts or quit. This is what the Delhi High Court bench told a Lieutenant Colonel of the Indian Army who had approached the court to challenge the ban of 89 applications, including social media sites Facebook and Instagram from use by armed forces personnel.
Social media has become a way by which companies snoop on potential employees before hiring, determining if they are the right fit. It has also been used to control what the individual says out loud, like several mediapersons, especially those working in TV, face. But the order to all army personnel to delete apps including social media sites, dating apps, gaming apps and shopping apps, amongst others, by 15 July has become a slippery slope. The directive calls it critical to national security while the challenger says it undermines his freedom.
Lt Colonel PK Choudhary, who is currently posted in Jammu and Kashmir, explained in the plea why he felt his rights were being curtailed. Being an active user of Facebook, he said he used it to stay in touch with his daughter who stays abroad and with other family members and friends.
The officer has started an important discussion by questioning a soldier’s fundamental rights “including but not limited to the freedom of speech and expression, the right to life and the right to privacy” which he said in his petition, were being weakened by the directive and was “illegal, arbitrary, disproportionate and violates the fundamental rights of soldiers”.
The ban has been imposed in tandem with the growing tensions at India’s borders with China, which have caused India to ban 59 Chinese apps for all Indians. These 59 apps are included in the 89 banned for army personnel. Including the recent occurrences, there is also the threat of security forces who have been vulnerable in the past to honey trapping. In 2018, then Minister of State, Defence, Subhash Bhamre had told the Lok Sabha that in between 2015-18, five cases of honey-trapping had been detected.
A report from 2019 pointed to a Pakistani spy being found, going by the Facebook name Sejal Kapoor as having hacked into the computer systems of more than 98 personnel of various defence forces, including the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force, between 2015 and 2018.
Then earlier this year, Indian Navy personnel were banned from using social media sites like Facebook after its personnel were found to be involved in a spy ring created by Pakistani intelligence operatives who had honey-trapped them on social media.
The threats that pertain to honey trapping may be real, but if the personnel simply abide by the rules the Army has already doled out, then why the need to introduce a blanket ban? There already had been directions in 2019 by the Army asking its personnel as well as their families not to post photos on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram of soldiers in uniform or with military equipment, installations and cantonments in the backdrop.
A report by India Today had said the personnel were also warned from clicking on advertisements on social sites offering prizes or awards. They are asked to abstain from revealing their rank, unit name and location or anything related to their work, and are also warned against accepting friend requests from unknown persons. Obviously, this was not enough. What is interestingly similar is the case of civilians for whom social media becomes a way by which your employer can control you.
For a TV reporter with an English Channel like Rajiv (name changed), it’s the big media house which controls just how much he can say out loud. He tells us that while his employer did not ask him to sign any contract about do’s and don’ts on social media, he has at least on three occasions been served notices about his Twitter posts. “TV channels don’t want you to write any anti-establishment views or news, nor about the prime minister”.
On the three occasions when he was asked to remove them, he says he was left with no choice but to do so. “All the channels don’t want journalists to write anything anti-government or the editor will get a call from someone in the government and then you will be given a notice. That is how it works”.
Katy (name changed) says when she was looking for a new job, she made her friends “friend” her on a second Facebook page for the workplace she had applied to. This was a corporate job she was applying for, “I didn’t want them to see all my posts, my friends, all my personal details. Plus, when I did get hired, the work required me to connect with potential business clients through our personal social media platform. This did not sit right with me.” This became, she said, a way for them to own even a personal site like her Facebook account.
What others do
In the petition, filed through advocates Shivank Pratap Singh and Sanandika Pratap Singh, the Lt Col had sought a direction to the central government through the defence ministry to withdraw its policy to “ensure that the fundamental rights of armed forces personnel are not abrogated amended or modified by arbitrary executive action which is not backed by the mandate of law, offends the provisions of the Army Act and Rules made thereunder and is unconstitutional”.
But the Delhi High Court bench comprising Justices Rajiv Sahai Endlaw and Asha Menon declined to grant an interim relief responding with a “No. No. Sorry.” It instead went on to ask the petitioner, a day before the deadline of July 15, to delete his accounts, adding, “You can always create a new one. It cannot work like this. You are part of an organisation. You have to abide by its mandate”. It in fact responded to the officer saying, “If you are so dear to FB, then put in your papers. See, you have to make a choice, what do you want to do. You have other choices which are also irreversible.”
Advocate Shivank Pratap Singh has said that the order to delete the account will mean all of his client’s valuable data will be lost, which would be irreversible. But Additional Solicitor General Chetan Sharma, who appeared for the Centre, opposed the plea, and specifically pointed out to Facebook and that the government had found a bug. “It was infiltrating as cyber warfare and there were so many instances of personnel being targeted.”
If we go by the security issue of revealing critical information, in the US, the social media usage guidelines for soldiers is to abide by the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). The website post about the rules and regulations actually says ‘the Army encourages soldiers and their families to use social media to stay connected and tell the Army’s story’. It instead puts an emphasis on what the personnel and family comment on, and post, “linking to material that violates the UCMJ or basic rules of Soldier’s conduct are prohibited, along with talking negatively about supervisors or releasing sensitive information”.
The US Army instead makes sure their personnel don’t slip up by monitoring their social media activity, especially in war zones.
Russia went a step ahead in 2019 to stop its military personnel from using social media by banning smartphones, tablets and laptops while on duty. Russia’s Parliament voted it into place calling the use of social media a subject of national security.
In India, the Delhi High court will be the first decider, as the matter is listed for hearing on 21 July. It has asked the ASG to file the policy document in a sealed cover, along with the reasons for taking the decision.
(Cover: Before the blanket ban on social media this year, in 2019, Army personnel had been told not to reveal their rank, unit name, location or anything related to their work // PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES)