On May 31, 2019, the U.S. Department of State introduced a change in online visa forms for immigrant (form DS-260) and non-immigrant visas (form DS-160) requiring applicants to register their social media accounts, which they have used over a five-year period. Applicants are required to list details of their accounts and not passwords.
How did it come about?
The policy is part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s intent to conduct “extreme vetting” of foreigners seeking admission into the U.S.
How will it impact India?
Most Indians applying for U.S. visas will be covered by this policy. Over 955,000 non-immigrant visas (excluding A and G visas) and some 28,000 immigrant visas were issued to Indians in year 2018. So at least 10 lakh Indians will be directly impacted by the policy.
What lies ahead?
The bluntness of the policy and its vast scope raise serious concerns around civil liberties including questions of arbitrariness, mass surveillance, privacy, and the stifling of free speech.
First, it is usual for an individual to unable to recall all their social media accounts over a five-year period. Consequently, even if acting in good faith, it is entirely possible for individuals to provide an incomplete social media history. This could give consular officers grounds for denying a visa.
Second, there is a significant degree of discretion involved in determining what constitutes a visa-disqualifying social media post and this could stifle free speech. For instance, is criticising the President of the United States or posting memes about him (there are plenty of those on social media these days) grounds for visa denial? What about media professionals? Is criticising U.S. foreign policy a ground for not granting someone a visa?
Third, one can expect processing delays with visas as social media information of applicants is checked.