Amid reports that a Facebook associate was involved in a massive breach of user information to allegedly influence polls in the US and the UK, Union Minister for IT and Law, Ravi Shankar Prasad, delivered a sharp warning to the social media giant, saying the government would take “stringent action”, including “summoning” its CEO Mark Zuckerberg to India, in case of any data theft of Indians.
Speaking to reporters outside Parliament Wednesday, Prasad also triggered a political war of words when he accused the main Opposition Congress party of having links with Cambridge Analytica, the Facebook associate under the scanner.
The Congress denied the allegation and claimed that the BJP and its current ruling ally in Bihar, JD(U), had engaged the data firm in elections, including in 2014.
With a US privacy watchdog and British authorities launching probes over the breach by Facebook during elections, Prasad said the government was in touch with the US Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice to assess privacy violations of Indian users.
Prasad said any attempt made by Facebook or its associates “to covertly or overtly influence free and fair elections through means that are undesirable” will “neither be appreciated nor permitted”, and would attract charges under the IT Act.
Pointing out that 20 crore Indians were using Facebook, making it the company’s largest market outside of the US, Prasad said, “Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook’s system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you to India.”
Prasad warned that “if need be, stringent action will be taken”.
“Let me make it very, very clear, we fully support freedom of press, speech and expression, we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, overt or covert, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated,” he said.
On the possibility of ordering a probe on Facebook’s data use, Prasad said any specific complaint would be taken up by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). In 2016, the TRAI had cracked down on what it said was “discriminatory pricing” for Internet access that led to a ban on platforms like Facebook’s Free Basics.
“We have got a very robust mechanism available, we will look into it. But today… let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California,” said Prasad.
The Union Minister then targeted the Congress, asking whether it would “depend on data manipulation and its theft to win elections”.
Citing reports on UK’s Channel 4 News that Cambridge Analytica had secretly influenced election campaigns across the world, Prasad alleged that the firm had plans to influence polls in India, too. Referring to other news reports, he alleged that the controversial firm was in talks with the Congress party for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
“Why is the Congress in love with such firms? My question to the party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data? What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in the social media profile of Rahul Gandhi?” he asked.
Referring to a series of unsavoury claims made by Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix to an undercover reporter for Channel 4 News, Prasad said, “Would the Congress now depend on data manipulation and theft to woo the voters? Will they adopt sex, sleaze and fake news to win elections?”
Denying the charges, the Congress party claimed that the BJP and JD(U) had used data firms affiliated to Cambridge Analytica during the 2014 general elections. Referring to claims made on the website of Ovleno Business Intelligence, an Indian affiliate of Cambridge Analytica’s parent company Strategic Communications Laboratories, the Congress charged that the firm had furnished a constituency-wise database to the BJP for assembly and Lok Sabha elections.
“Cambridge Analytica’s linked website shows that in 2010 its services were used by BJP-JD(U). The firm’s Indian partner Ovlene Business Intelligence is being run by BJP ally’s MP’s son. OBI company’s services were used by (Home Minister) Rajnath Singh in 2009,” claimed Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala.
BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra denied the charges. “The BJP has nothing to hide… we have seen that the company has pulled down its website after an allegation that it was carrying the name of BJP. As far as Cambridge Analytica is concerned, it was formed in 2013, so it could not campaign for any elections in 2013-14. Congress has outsourced its campaign for 2019 in a big way. The government is going to investigate,” he said.
In the US, meanwhile, Facebook Inc and Cambridge Analytica have been sued for obtaining information belonging to 50 million users without permission.
AP reported that the proposed class-action complaint filed late Tuesday night by a Maryland resident is the first of what could be many lawsuits seeking damages over Facebook’s ability to protect user data, and Cambridge Analytica’s exploitation of that data to benefit President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
In London, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said she is pursuing a warrant to search Cambridge Analytica’s servers to verify allegations that data of Facebook users in the UK were used to influence polls, including Brexit. CEO Nix has already been suspended by the data firm’s board.