Don’t take shelter under technicalities, Ravi Shankar to social media platforms. Prasad stands firm on his views and said that the norms have not come suddenly but is a work in progress for three-four years

The Union Minister for Electronics & Information Technology, Communications and Law & Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, while dismissing all speculation around the proposed Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, said he would like to bring it to reality at the first available opportunity (whenever the next session of Parliament convenes).

Prasad, who is the man of the moment with his Ministry in direct confrontation with the social media entities like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp on the new IT Rules, stands firm on his views and said, “these norms have not come suddenly. This is a work in progress for three-four years.”

In conversation with BusinessLine, Prasad said, “No data can be taken from anyone without consent. The processor of data must use it only to the extent it is consented for.” He also said that the standard operating procedures (SoPs) of the Data Protection Law are being made right now. On the matter of BSNL getting the 5G license, the Minister said it will be given. Excerpts:

There is a perception that the government was late in coming out with IT (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules. What is your view on it?

Good you ask me this. Let me put it straight — these norms have not come suddenly. This has been a work in progress for almost three-four years. There were demands from all quarters for making the rules.

Look at it this way. The combined user-base of all these social media platforms — Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApps, etc. — is close to 100-crore-plus. Social media has today become the source of large amount of pornography/paedophiles. Drugs, weapons and other contraband can be sourced through the use of platforms run by the intermediary. In such circumstances, it is imperative that there is a properly framed regime to find out the person/institution/bodies, which are the originators of such content messages. It may be necessary to get such information from the intermediary.

There was a Supreme Court order of 2018 wherein the Apex Court had said ‘please frame appropriate guidelines in case of pornography, abuse of women, children etc’. There is also a particular judgment on a petition by Facebook itself in 2019. Facebook had said that there are various messages and content which are shared on the social media, some of which are harmful. Some messages can incite violence, while there may be messages which are against the sovereignty and integrity of the country, it pointed out.

In 2018, there was a big debate in the Rajya Sabha on fake news where, cutting across party lines, they asked me to tighten the guidelines of fake news and all these posts. It was my assurance in Parliament that we will come out with rules. Therefore, the Court’s orders (Apex Court), command of Parliament, demand by the civil society, followed by large scale consultations- hundreds of them, led to these rules.

Today, not only public figures are subject to daily criticism and abuse, journalists/ editors are being trolled, judges are being trolled; forget terrorism and other issues. These guidelines address not the use of social media, but the abuse and misuse of social media.

The Rules ask for appointment of a compliance officer. But some of these players are appointing them in their countries of origin. So, how does it help the Indian user?

What we have said is that you have to appoint a grievance officer first and then a compliance officer. My views are very clear: The officer has to be India-based. The officer can be your employee who will be a grievance redress officer and compliance officer. The officer will also work as a nodal officer to coordinate with the government. Are we asking for the moon?

Let me ask a simple question. Do they need a UPSC type of examination to select a grievance redress officer? As an interim measure, you can look at your own thousands of employees here and select one officer.

When Indian IT companies go to do business in America do they follow the American laws or not? When Indian pharma companies go for manufacturing in America, do they follow the American laws or not? It is a pretty simple question I am asking. Let me be very clear — there shall be no compromise on the digital sovereignty of India. They are free to do business here, earn good revenue from here with the amount of user-base they have, advertisements also; so they have to follow the law of the land too.

I am again repeating, the issue is not of use, the issue is of misuse and abuse. Do the victims of abuse and misuse have a forum or not?

But they fear government interventions in their functioning...?

I want to make it very clear —this whole concept (Rules) is between the platform and its users who are its victims and should be done in proper perspective.

Why have double standards? When American Congress at the Capitol is being vandalised, you blocked the Twitter account of many including the former President. But when Red Fort, India's pride, is invaded, then you say it is freedom of expression. When Singapore protested, you removed Singapore variant immediately, but in spite of the Government of India’s formal order, it takes you a week to remove the Indian variant of Covid. Why? This is not acceptable.

India is a robust democracy governed by the Constitution. Independent judiciary, independent media, we are accountable to the people by elections. A private, for-profit company sitting in America should refrain from lecturing us on the issue of democracy.

Recent past has seen mushrooming with newer sites and also some existing players are defining their work profile in such a way that would help them escape the rules. Will the rule be applicable to all uniformly? What about WhatsApp’s new privacy policy?

The rules are same for all, whomsoever has more than 50 lakh users or significant presence.

On Google/YouTube, I would say, let us not take shelter in the name of technicalities. Is it not the moral obligation of the platform by whatever name it goes, to respect the dignity of women of India or anyone, whose naked/morphed images being circulated? Should not there be a mechanism that we shall not pick up any compromising photograph of a woman unless we are shown with element of consent for public display?

As regards WhatsApp, I must clarify one thing that the ordinary users of WhatsApp have nothing to fear at all. Friends to friends messaging, doctors to patients, lawyers to clients, media to its source, boyfriend to girlfriend, girlfriend to boyfriend, etc., will go unhindered in the encrypted form as it goes. Our focus is on the message already in circulation/gone viral and is causing riots, mob lynching, terrorism, impinging upon security or safety of India and showing a woman being raped or in nudity or children being forced of sexual abuse…only in these designed cases, security agencies can ask, please explain who started the mischief? That’s all. They're not seeking content removal. It is already in public domain. All we want to know is who started the mischief and where it came from.

What is privacy? What you eat is your personal choice… The Supreme Court itself has said privacy principles have certain exceptions. They have allowed Innovative Technology in IT to be exempted from the principle of privacy because it is an expanding area.

The problems for technology can be solved by technology. When the Cambridge Analytica matter happened, five lakh of Indian data were released from Facebook to them, where was privacy? I sought for the CBI enquiry and later they got pulled down.

When the latest privacy policy of WhatsApp came, what are they saying, “We will share your data with business associates’. Where is the privacy there? We had to send a show-cause notice to them. Therefore, if the details are being sought, which are fully reasonably in readable classification and in public interests, why are you debating about it? Are you not giving it in many foreign countries, I don’t want to name.

Some players say they will respond when Data Protection Law comes. When will it become a reality?

On the Data Protection Law, the core Committee has given us the report. They have done a great job. In the next session (of the Parliament), I want to push it. India has the great potential to become a big data hub. Apart from element of consent, there is a huge potential of data training, data innovations and India can become a big part of the global data economy. I am very assured to know that big data centres are being set up in India in various sector.

Our data protection law very clearly states that no data can be taken from anyone without a consent…they will be only voluntary. The processor of data must use it only when it has the consent of the data protection officer. It will be a very proper law.