Updated: March 8, 2021 7:58:03 am
Over the past year, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has more than once burnt the proverbial midnight oil to introduce several policy changes. From the launch of the Arogya Setu app for contact tracing and keeping people updated with the latest on Covid-19, to a production linked incentive (PLI) scheme for mobile phones and allied components, and then the banning of apps which had links with the Chinese military and the government, the IT ministry and its head, Ravi Shankar Prasad often had more files on their desk than most of his cabinet colleagues.
The latest episode, for which the ministry has received both bouquets and brickbats, contained a very public confrontation with Twitter, followed by new guidelines for social media intermediaries. In an exclusive interview with The Indian Express, Prasad for the first time talks about the need to introduce the new guidelines, the case for regulation of big tech companies and what would happen if social media intermediaries do not follow the government laid norms in future. Edited Excerpts:
The new guidelines for social media intermediaries are being viewed as an attempt to stifle free speech and criticism? How would you respond to that?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: India is a democracy, a free country. We welcome criticism and dissent. This criticism can extend from the Prime Minister to the government and other ministers of the government. In many ways, we are so free that some people have had consistent criticism narrative against the prime minister not just today, but for the last twenty years. We welcome people giving us ‘gyan’ through their very stringent criticism on social media. But those who are giving ‘gyan’ to the country must have the courage to verify themselves, so that we can know their genuineness. Significant social media platforms should have a voluntary user verification mechanism and some markers to identify a verified account, so that those not willing to verify can also be known.
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Secondly, these guidelines have nothing to do with how social media should be used or not. It is to check the abuse and misuse of social media. If there are more than 130 crore users of social media and they have a grievance, should they not have proper grievance redressal mechanism? The complaints and voices of victims were not heard. If these platforms gave them voice, it should also give them an outlet to be heard and then resolve those complaints in a time bound manner.
The government would have no role in this. It is for the platforms to listen and settle the grievances. The guidelines that we have introduced are under the rule making powers of the government.
From the floor of the Rajya Sabha, you talked about a differential approach adopted by platforms like Twitter for laws in the US, or the European countries compared to India. Do you think there is a case of these platforms taking Indian laws lightly?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: If Capitol Hill is a symbol of their democracy, our Lal Quila (Red Fort) is also the pride of India, where all the prime ministers unfurl the national flag. You must show the respect for Lal Quila. You can’t have double standards. The police action there is welcome. In fact the attack on Capitol Hill raised questions about the very efficacy of American democracy.
What happened here? Showing naked swords, tractors chasing policemen, and the way they were thrown down from heights. We need to appreciate the suffering policemen. They showed great restraint and did not open fire or anything like that. This is plainly unacceptable.
The IT ministry exercised its emergency powers to ask Twitter to take down certain posts. These posts were later restored by the platform citing freedom of speech and expression.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: If these platforms operate in India, they will have to follow Indian laws. The law is also derived from the constitution of India. The Article 19 1 (A) is a fundamental right which ensures and gives the right to freedom of speech and expression. But it is also subject to Article 19 (2), which says that reasonable restriction can be imposed. The platforms can not say that they will follow their own laws and rules.
How can Twitter justify #FarmerGenocide? It is designed to provoke and commit mayhem based on falsehood. When we had flagged them, many of these posts had come from across the border. In many such cases, we use persuasion, request the platforms and even cajole them into following government order. Now if the platforms do not follow the orders even after that, the emergency powers in existence will have to be used. It is also the obligation of the state to maintain peace and tranquility in the country.
Should big tech companies be more regulated, the way other countries across the globe are doing? The US is discussing breaking up these big companies into smaller units, which would be easy to regulate. Are Indian agencies taking a soft-glove approach?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: India is a huge market for these platforms and I can only tell these platforms to learn to respect Indian democracy and laws. The social media guidelines have now come. It is obligatory for them to follow it. We have appreciated the work done by these platforms in India. They have a large footprint in India and have earned good money. But they will have to follow the laws, the constitution, the guidelines and the obligations of the guidelines.
All these platforms will be held accountable in the light of the dialogues they have with officials from the IT ministry. They (Amazon) had once said that they would not appear before the standing committee of the Indian parliament. They would appear before the American Congress, the British Parliament and not before the Indian Parliament or its committee? That is not acceptable. As far as regulating big tech and breaking them up into smaller units is concerned, those developments we are also observing.
Several concerns have been raised about significant social media intermediaries needing to “enable the identification of the first originator of the information”. Experts have called it the end of privacy, the breaking of ‘end-to-end’ encryption.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: We respect privacy. The Supreme Court’s judgment says that privacy is an essential part of fundamental rights. The court, however, has also said that a terrorist or corrupt person has no right to privacy. Otherwise no police action will be permissible.
When we seek information about the originator, we do not want to see the content. That is their domain. The content is already known as the message is already viral. We are not asking at all to decrypt. All we are asking is who started it, which caused mayhem and violence? If it came from across the border, who started it in India first. I think that is quite easy.
How do you address the concerns around the lack of consultations before the new guidelines were introduced?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: That is not right. There were extensive consultations before the new guidelines were introduced. The 2021 guidelines are an extension of the old draft on which comments and counter comments had been received. The guidelines were framed after the matter has been engaged in judiciary, including Supreme Court and many Parliamentary committees, apart from concerned civil societies. This question has been asked again and again and it has been said that there had been no consultations. But who do we consult with is the question?
For newspapers, television channels, you have a list. For over-the-top (OTT) platforms, you have a list. There were meetings and consultations with OTT platforms in Mumbai, Chennai and Delhi. In the case of digital news media, we do not know how many of them are operating across the country. You go to YouTube, you find a lot of journalists, editors and others. We are not asking for registration but for information, about who they are, what channels do they operate and what is their location.
The Supreme Court has observed that the new guidelines for OTT platforms are toothless as there are no provisions for punishment in case of violations. Earlier they had said that some of the OTT platforms also show porn. Your views on that?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Normally, I do not comment on observations of the Supreme Court. But if they (SC) have observed, in many ways it also conveys a public sense of discomfort on this. That is all I can say. We will have to look at the judicial order and see how we handle it. The observations of the SC is appreciated. The whole digital ecosystem is still evolving.
The path to maturity of digital ecosystem would depend on the response of the platforms to such challenges. However, the digital media ecosystem would also need to understand Indian values and moral. The ground rules and what works in Western countries can not be adopted lock, stock and barrel in India or in other oriental countries. That will have to be kept in mind.
The Information Technology Act of 2000 was made keeping in mind ways to prevent hacking and the concepts around it. There have been shape shifting changes to technology since then. Is there a need to update the act now?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: There is a case for improvement in the IT Act. It is a work in progress. There could be changes to the data law and how to sync the changes in technology with it. It is a larger question and we will have to study that in depth. There has to be widespread consultations on this.
There have been incentives given to global companies to set up shops in India in the past as well. What is so different in the PLI schemes that have been announced this time around?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Many global manufacturing companies observed India as an emerging market for consumption, and as a country where human resource is full of extraordinary potential. That made a powerful impact. Secondly, in the emerging strategic and geo-political scenario, companies wanted an alternative location and we emerged as a favourable destination.
PLI in case of mobile phones and allied components was announced during the pandemic and the last date for applications were also in July, when the Covid-19 pandemic was still raging. In spite of all of that, the top ten global mobile phone makers have applied, with commitment to make products worth more than Rs 10 lakh crore, of which Rs 7 lakh crore worth will be for export. Direct and indirect jobs to 8-9 lakh people will be given by these companies. Production worth Rs 35,000 crore has already been achieved so far, giving job to about 25,000 people, even during these challenging times.
Given the global geo-political scenario, will India present itself as the next big destination for manufacturing, pitching itself directly against some of its bigger immediate neighbours?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Why not? India has all the potential. It is job giving, not polluting, and it gives gravitas to the manufacturing ability of India. We are an open society with good human resource and supporting policy infrastructure. The whole ecosystem of electronics is the future. I can assure the investors that we are going to be a favourable destination for them commercially. We do not wish to compete with anyone. The world is listening and appreciating India’s manufacturing story.
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