ET’s Surabhi Agarwal, Chandrasekhar said social media platforms should be accountable for content on their platforms and that personal and non-personal data should be regulated by a single data protection authority.
He also said that keeping senstitive personal data in India is good for
data autonomy and data security of the country. His ministry is working on a significant “digital government” project, he said, which will deepen the use of technology in governance.
A parliamentary panel’s draft report talks about social media platforms being given the publishers’ tag. If it is incorporated into law, will you as junior IT minister be comfortable with that?
I have always maintained…that social media platforms are publishers, because…they are publishing content. The only dispute was whether they are responsible for content published on their platforms by somebody else, or is somebody else responsible? You can’t have a situation where millions and billions of people are posting content. Some of the content is either wrong or is defamatory or it is illegal. It is abusive, or it is plain outright, predatory and exploitative of people, and nobody is held responsible. That can’t be a situation for any civilized society, any law-abiding community. Therefore, it’s a question of whether the person who is identified and publishing the content is culpable for something wrong and illegal, or is it the platform? It can’t be that both are not (responsible). So far, the jurisprudence has been that both are not (responsible). (Platforms) allow a consumer to be anonymous, they don’t want to take the responsibility of publishing the content. And you also will not identify the first originator of illegal content. That’s like utopia for criminals.
Since a new team took over at the telecom and IT ministry, there seems to be a kind of a de-escalation of hostilities…
I can assure you that I have not made any effort in either de-escalating or escalating. We want to be very professional. We want to fulfil the goals and objectives of a trillion-dollar digital economy, and every participant in that digital economy – small, big, foreign or Indian – should have equal opportunities in terms of law and jurisprudence. We don’t want to make it difficult…or easy for anybody. So, simple rules. That is why we had FAQs (on IT Rules) … our main mission is to grow and achieve a trillion-dollar digital economy in a healthy manner, and that citizens are respected, feel comfortable and safe on the internet, as well as investors and businesses.
What do you think about revelations that companies like Facebook are putting profits over user harm and fuelling the spread of fake news and misinformation in countries including India?
If any platform today believes that they can use algorithms to duck the responsibility of correct or wrong or fake or accurate, biased, unbiased, discriminatory, non-discriminatory (content), if they think that algorithm is a cover for all the responsibility they have, that is incorrect. I’ve made it very clear to all of them that they will have to abide by and respect the Constitutional values of Article 14,19 and 21. That is the right of every Indian citizen not to be discriminated against, to be given equal opportunity, to be given the right to speak, subject to restrictions of Article 19, and the right to have data protection and privacy. Whether you use an algorithm, manual intervention, you cannot violate it. So, if there are instances where citizens report these violations to the grievance officers, it is for these platforms to respond to those grievances and address them. That is an absolutely non-negotiable rule of operating (in the country).
How do you look at the inclusion of non-personal data in the Personal Data Protection Bill? There has been some criticism over it…
I shouldn’t even be commenting on this until I see the (JPC) report. But I feel there should be no two buckets of regulation. I suspect what the committee has done is to say both buckets of data should be regulated by one law and one entity, which, in my opinion, is an elegant solution. I don’t see any criticism or need for criticism.
What do you think of the current IPO frenzy by Indian startups and drop in valuations of companies like Paytm?
In the last 15 years, there have been no tech IPOs after, say, Infosys or Wipro. Now, you have this kind of energy and momentum coming out of the stock market. In my opinion, it is very transformational. It is like what the startups of Silicon Valley did to Nasdaq. Startups have become a big part of the stock market and is a good thing for India. That is where the next growth engine is going to be. I am very supportive of it. I can’t comment on the valuations but the fact that investors are welcoming startups is a good thing. I think the next step will be public markets funding venture capital.
Be it sourcing hardware, storing of data or common internet policies, are treaties with trusted countries the way forward?
Thefuture of technology is definitely going to be around closer partnership and closer cooperation between open countries, open societies and democracy. Because, for the last 20-25 years, certain authoritarian systems have been able to proliferate and take technologies away from open systems, open societies and open countries like the United States and India and create certain structural imbalances in the electronics and technology supply chains. The future of technology should be shaped by countries that share certain basic values. Consumers and every citizen should benefit from the technology that has been created and not just a few companies. The coming together of those countries will, in my opinion, be inevitable in shaping the future, whether it is data protection, or the future AI or the internet.
In his last meeting with secretaries, the Prime Minister asked for deepening technology usage in all government projects and expanding the use of Aadhaar. What are some of the big ideas/projects that your ministry is undertaking to implement his vision?
We have developed and are creating a strategy note on this around digital government, which is really about meeting the Prime Minister’s vision of accelerating the digitalization of government faster. In the last seven years, we have done a considerable amount of work on Digital India, and you’ve had successes like UPI, Aadhaar etc. But in the next three years, hopefully we will create a framework where we break down silos within the government. So, there is a digital government plan that is being architected and designed. It will become the next generation of e-governance.
Is the government satisfied with the progress on building an electronics manufacturing ecosystem in India in the last seven years?
You can’t but be satisfied because we were at Rs 1.8 lakh crore in 2014. The manufacturing ecosystem in India had been hammered and almost shattered by all these FTAs pre-2014…we are now at Rs 5 lakh crore, which is gross revenues of electronics manufacturing. So, we have grown at over 20% CAGR from 2014 to 2020. That has given us more confidence, and now it is clear post-Covid-19 that there is an increasing desire for those who are headquartered in certain countries, which have dominated the supply chains, to diversify … And they are looking at India as a very real alternative to that country. So, that opportunity …is a Y2K moment for electronics manufacturing. This is an opportunity that will be there for the next two to three years. We have to put all our efforts as a nation, private sector, ministry, and other ministries to make that move. Because, once it moves to some other country it will be difficult to move back.
What is the action plan on semiconductor manufacturing in India?
It is part of the overall electronics strategy of the Prime Minister – that if we have to be a significant electronics player in the global value chain for electronics, semiconductor ambitions have to be real. We have to create a semiconductor ecosystem, which includes design, packaging, manufacture. The government is very serious about it. Very soon you will hear something from the government on that.
The PM said recently that the government is preparing incentives for semiconductor fabs. What can we expect and how soon?
All I can say is that ‘stay tuned’ on this for more.
Large parts of the country are still not connected to the internet. What is your roadmap for connecting all Indians?
The Prime Minister’s vision from Day One has been that technology must empower every Indian. On internet connectivity, the last remaining big piece is the largest rural broadband connectivity piece, the BharatNet, which the Department of Telecom and BSNL are fully working on. Once it is complete, it’s very likely that about 40 to 50 crore Indians will have high-speed broadband connectivity. So, I think that is a question for the next three years. If all things go well, we can have 1.1 billion Indians connected over the next few years, making India the largest connected country in the world.
On the recent Facebook revelations, we have not seen any response from the government…
No. It is about some illegality under US law. I’m not being facetious and I’m not trivializing (the issue). But today, any Indian citizen has a right to raise his or her grievance to Facebook or Twitter, saying that I am being discriminated against. We have no role in terms of responding to a whistle-blower in the US, frankly. What we will do is make sure that these platforms are 100% accountable to the users that they serve. And the moment that users in India have a problem, then we step in. Whatever powers we have, we will exercise. And maybe as we move forward, and jurisprudence evolves, the list of user harm will become broader. And maybe the powers that are given to regulators or statutory bodies will be a lot more specific. Currently the powers that the government have under the IT Act are limited.
You were one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court on the privacy issue. How do you defend the government seeking blanket exemption for itself and all its agencies in the privacy Bill?
Section 35 is not seeking blanket exemption. Under the Constitution, every fundamental right has exceptions, they are not absolute. Section 35 says that if there is a national security issue, public order etc, under these cases, government agencies will be able to access your data and information. Actually, Section 35 is not an issue. I don’t understand the concern with Section 12, and we will study it.
So, whatever the JPC has recommended, that is binding on the government?
The government will accept the recommendations of the joint parliamentary committee, there is no reason for the government not to accept the recommendation of 20 parliamentarians or 30 parliamentarians, because they are the ones who would pass the Bill anyway in Parliament. So, unless we go through it in detail and study it and see if something is completely inconsistent with something else, I don’t see any reason for us to not go with the committee.
The parliamentary panel has recommended data localisation of personal data, including asking companies to bring back data from overseas servers? Is this feasible in a globalised scenario and will it affect investments?
I’ve always maintained that laws like this will evolve. For the most part, this concern – that sensitive personal data should be exported or stored outside of India only with the consent of the government or with explicit permission – I subscribe to that view of the committee. But this area will evolve, things like friendly jurisdictions for storage of data, reciprocal treaties, that will allow American data to be stored in India, Indian data to be stored in America, these will eventually evolve over time. But there cannot be any argument or doubt about the reasonableness of the need to keep sensitive personal data in India, and not have that exported by intermediaries who are based in the USA, Europe or China. That is an important principle. I think that is an acceptable formulation for our country and is good for us in terms of data autonomy and data security.