Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar says the IT rules are aimed at “keeping the Internet open” and explains why any law that governs the Internet has to take into account the “evolving jurisprudence” around cyberspace. This session was moderated by Deputy Political Editor Liz Mathew & Principal Correspondent Aashish Aryan.
AASHISH ARYAN: Over the past six-eight months, there had been a sort of tussle between the IT Ministry and social media intermediaries due to the new IT rules. There has been a marked shift since the new minister (Ashwani Vaishnaw) came in, the escalations have come down remarkably. Is there a conscious effort to do this?
I don’t want to compare with any particular incident that happened in the past, but the government is very clear about what our objectives are regarding any legislation, public policy, rules, and are making a conscious effort to convey it to the public. The IT rules are aimed at essentially keeping the Internet open, making it trusted and safe, and ensuring that the intermediaries are accountable to the user. There is very little about the government in the entire construct. It is, as you would agree, the remit of the government — in this case, MeITY (Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology) — to ensure that user issues and user grievances are addressed, whether it is having a consumer forum, or in the Internet sense, having a grievance or compliance official. It is a question of understanding our role and our expectations, and it has been made clear to all intermediaries, whether big or small, that we have no intention of interfering in their functions as long as they respect the users who are on their platforms and they comply with the laws that have been laid down.
To one social media intermediary, I said that as part of MeITY, we have many different things to do, for the country and the digital economy. Managing or regulating social media intermediaries is not really high on the priority of things given all of the heavy-lifting that the government wants and has to do. It is simply about laying out our expectations, our role and people understanding it. I have also promised that wherever there are grey areas or interpretation issues, the ministry will time to time introduce FAQs and SOPs. We will create the necessary framework for everybody to do business, make investments, run a successful business model subject to basic requirements of user accountability, following the law.
AASHISH ARYAN: Would you say you are satisfied with the way intermediaries have accepted these new rules, barring the legal challenges that continue?
Everybody who is a responsible stakeholder in the Internet right now understands that the jurisprudence around the cyber space is evolving. What was not there yesterday is there today, and what is not there today, will be there tomorrow. Eight-nine years ago, this cyber space did not even exist and we did not even anticipate some of the user harm and the user issues that are now surfacing. I come from a school in the late ‘80s-early ‘90s where Internet was this big, beautiful Utopia. Of course we now realise that the Internet is about big business interests, user harm, about all good things and there are many bad things. So the jurisprudence around this will evolve, but we are committed to ensuring there is transparency, public consultation as this happens. I think that this confidence the industry and stakeholders are getting from us. I have been asked this question many times and I have repeated that in it is in our DNA to consult the stakeholders, including consumers, before we do anything. But we must be reasonable and expect that there will be judicial and jurisprudential evolution.
PRANAV MUKUL: A Facebook whistleblower has revealed how the company prioritised its profits over dealing with hate speech or misinformation. Has the government taken note of this, or taken measures to check this in India? Do you think our current IT rules can prevent this?
What’s happening with social media intermediaries in the US is precisely why I think the IT rules are very important because they create an accountability relationship between them and the user. There is an absolute relationship between the user who feels the intermediary is being unfair, biased and prejudicial. The consumer has the right to raise that grievance, and the intermediary is obliged to respond to it… I don’t see any role for the government there. It’s really about accountability to the users, accountability of the intermediaries to ensure that they are non-discriminatory, that they respect Articles 14, 19, 21 of the Constitution, vis-a-vis every one of our consumers.
On the issue of the IT rules, we have to get used to the fact that the jurisprudence and the legal framework around cyberspace and all things Internet will continuously evolve.
PRANAV MUKUL: Lot of mobile phone companies have come to India and we have also seen a lot of the high-value components being manufactured in India. But despite efforts of the UPA and NDA governments, we have not been able to crack chip manufacturing? Where do you think the gaps are?
There is a whole eco-system that needs to be built for the electronics industry manufacturing to grow. We are today at about $75 billion of electronics production. After petroleum, electronics is the second-largest traded commodity in the world — $1.5 trillion is the world market, China alone accounts for about $650 billion. That is the opportunity. Post-Covid realities, supply chain diversifications and how electronics is growing, a significant part I believe will move out of China and look for large markets. India has a huge opportunity to become an electronics player, not just in mobiles but IT, automotive industry, servers… We want to broaden the electronics manufactured in India, also deepen the components base and the value added in this country. So naturally, one needs to look at semiconductor design, semiconductor manufacturing and semiconductor packaging and testing. The reason why we have not been successful in India in this is partly due to a flawed approach of putting the cart before the horse — you can’t manufacture chips when you don’t have an electronics ecosystem, when you don’t have demand for chips in the country. So, the vision of our honorable Prime Minister is to create a vibrant, robust electronics ecosystem, and then explore the semiconductor opportunity. I want to add that in the next five years, out of the 100 times increase in computing power, 90X will come from semiconductor design innovation and electronics system design innovation and software. India is in a very sweet spot in the post-Covid world… to build on the $75 billion of electronics manufacturing that we do today.
Liz Mathew: The biggest issue during the last Parliament session was Pegasus. You called it a bogus, hoax narrative when the Opposition raised the issue. But the Supreme Court said it wants to set up a committee. Does the government still maintain its stand that it did not buy or use the spyware?
I think it’s improper for me to comment when the matter is in the Supreme Cort. The government and my Cabinet colleagues have said what they had to say, I don’t want to add to that. The SC is setting up a committee, the government should be ok with that. My view is that these are claims that are easy to fling around. Unless today somebody produces a hacked phone with evidence that it has been hacked by the State, to make the claim that a particular software has been used to hack into phones is just that — a claim.
Liz Mathew: You were Vice-Chairman of the NDA in Kerala. The state unit of the BJP hasn’t managed to set its house in order and make any inroads in the state. How do you see the situation there?
I was vice-chairman of the NDA in 2016, when I was an Independent MP. Much water has flown under the bridge since then. I am a BJP karyakarta, a Keralite, and so I am heavily invested in the success of the BJP in Kerala. What and why it has happened is something I haven’t studied in deep. But in Kerala, the choice that the people of Kerala have is between a very, very Left Marxist government and a Congress Left that’s competing with the Left for how Left they are. So the space is open for development, a Centre-Right narrative, economic prosperity and entrepreneurship. It’s something I want to work for and the BJP in Kerala has tremendous opportunity. I am confident we will do well. I think Pinarayi Vijayan built this sophisticated narrative of how great a job he had done during Covid, but facts thereafter proved him wrong.
Aanchal Magazine: How are the programmes of the Skill Development Ministry being tailored to the post-Covid situation?
Covid has been a big hit on skilling because over the last five years, the entire skilling ecosystem was built around training centres and physical skilling. There are 70+ Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendras (PMKKs), 14,000-odd training centres, 14,000-odd ITIs that make up a large part of the skilling network that has been built over the last five years. But Covid put a deep brake on that vibrant skilling momentum. But over the last few months, the ministry has discovered digital skilling and wherever it is possible to do skilling online, we have moved to blended courses or pure digital courses. But it is clear that in a post-Covid world, a lot of our skilling programmes will now move to digital skilling — with our own platform and use of social media platforms like YouTube etc. This gives us a tremendous advantage as government because it increases our reach that much more. That’s going to be the new normal — a great deal of blended learning…
Aanchal Magazine: The IT structures for many crucial government platforms like the Income Tax portal and the GST platform were found wanting. You took to Twitter to ask IT firms to see such projects as special responsibility and deploy their best teams.
I did that tweet to alert Indian companies who may have developed a tendency… because government bids are (seen as) maybe less profitable than an overseas project for a corporate client. So there is a tendency to put their lower-level talent on a government project… My tweet was to say that look, at the end of the day, don’t forget that you are doing people’s work. Having said that, there is a need for those on the government side, who contract out these large complex, multi-locational contracts to be much more effective at programme management and contracting.
Harikishan Sharma: Given the recent incidents in Uttar Pradesh — Lakhimpur Kheri, farmer protests etc — what is your assessment of the BJP’s prospects in UP?
When the Chief Minister of UP has delivered on many of his promises — on better law and order, addressing issues of Covid, the economy, giving corruption-free governance — I can’t believe any sane voter who would compare this government with what they have experienced in the past… rampant nepotism, corruption… would hesitate to vote for the BJP under Yogi ji. This is my view, not as a political expert, but as a person with a highly developed sense of common sense. On Lakhimpur, our party president has said emphatically and repeatedly that whoever has violated the law will feel the full force of the law and it doesn’t matter who that person is. This atmosphere of baiting and bullying and ratcheting up the rhetoric is not doing anyone any service. You may think you are scoring big political points by drumming up hysteria and hate, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t pay.
Aashish Aryan: Since the IT rules came out, there have been legal challenges from the stakeholders with the HCs also observing that the rules go beyond the mandate of the IT Act. There has also been talk of the IT Act being updated. So what happens to the rules once the new IT Act is in place?
The IT act dates back to 2000 vintage — it’s 21 years old and in Internet time, that’s about four centuries. What will be the next avatar of the IT Act? That’s too early for us to discuss but it is commonsensical to conclude that there should be modern legislation that governs investment and activities around the Internet. I don’t know what shape and form that will be. We must as those who observe cyberspace get used to this jurisprudence that will evolve. It’s quite clear that challenges from Artificial Intelligence, 5G, Internet of Things… are something nobody can predict. Nobody still understands how you are going to regulate ethical AI. So to try and legislate all those things now is just meaningless. It means that two years from now, when those problems arise, we need to find new jurisprudence for it. On data protection, I hope the parliamentary committee completes its deliberations and the Act is returned to Parliament. Then maybe we can have a debate on that.
AAshish Aryan: On the data protection Bill, we are getting to know that the government is in favour of a strict age-gating policy to make it difficult for children below 18 to be on social media sites. Isn’t that a very moralistic stand?
On age-gating as an idea, it is not a binary between nothing and putting them in a cage or clamping down on freedom for the youth. There was a parliamentary committee of the Rajya Sabha that was chaired by Jairam Ramesh that went into child safety online and came to the conclusion that some sort of gating is required. What is the nature of the gating — should it be hard and fast or more dynamic… that is something we have to discuss once the Bill comes out.
Pranav Mukul: India has not been very successful at reining in big-tech companies whenever there have been anti-trust issues. Would you call for some kind of policy intervention on this?
The PM’s vision has been that the Internet should be open, safe, trusted and accountable. Openness means it is not under any state or government but also means it is not dominated by a few platforms or companies. There is a real risk of that happening with big-tech platforms. It’s a genuine concern that governments all over the world are grappling with. According to me, the Competition law suffers from an infirmity — that it can’t suo motu intervene if it detects anti-competitive behaviour. It’s something that’s missing today in the basket of policy options that the Government of India has to regulate big tech or to make big tech domination a thing that’s not anti-consumer. It’s something that we should think about and discuss.