IT and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasadhas been in the thick of things as the new guidelines for social media became a flashpoint for a showdown between the government and Twitter and WhatsApp over issues of privacy and free speech. He speaks to Sidhartha and Pankaj Doval on why the rules are not a bid to gag dissenting opinion but rather an attempt to protect the rights of social media users and ensure accountability from Big Tech. Excerpts:
There is an impression that the government is playing nanny to social media. Why is it so, and why are social media companies angry with the government?
I repudiate this question. The core issue is that these guidelines didn’t spring up suddenly. First, there are two Supreme Court judgements — the Prajwala case of 2018 regarding child pornography and the September 2019 case of Facebook versus the Union of India. In the second case, Supreme Court said that it is imperative that there is a properly-framed regime to find out the persons, institutions, and bodies who are the originators of such content messages… it may be necessary to get such information from the intermediaries. Also, in 2018, there was a debate in the Rajya Sabha on fake news where I had to give a commitment to frame guidelines.
There have also been countless questions in every session of Parliament, and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu had set up a committee of parliamentarians that gave recommendations on the issue of child sexual abuse. In the present guidelines too, we went for the widest consultations possible. We got hundreds of comments and counter-comments, including from the stakeholders. Thus, please disabuse the impression that we are nannies. No, we are not.
So why did the guidelines come?
This is based on the demand of the people, directions of courts, and command of Parliament and its committees. If a distraught mother complains of revenge porn her daughter has been subjected to, should I ask them to go to America as Twitter says. If a woman complains of a morphed image, then what should I do? Today, it is not only political leaders who suffer criticism day in and day out, but also journalists, editors, judges and even businessmen who are trolled. Thus, focus of the rules is more on abuse and misuse of social media, not of use of social media. Victims of abuse must have a forum for redressal of their grievances. That’s the main core of the rules.
Then why was there a problem with big social media companies?
On February 25, we notified the new guidelines in the gazette, and gave the significant intermediaries a three-month period to comply, which included appointing officers for compliance, addressing grievances, and being a nodal person. Did we ask for the moon? Do you need to hold a UPSC-type IAS exam to recruit these officers? In fact, they ought not have waited for the rules.
Grievance redress mechanism is there even in the print media, and broadcasters. On a more fundamental question: You will earn tons of money here, make good revenues here, have close to two crore Twitter users and nearly 100 crore between all the platforms combined. But to file a complaint, a user needs to go to the police or go to America where the name of the grievance officer is not even known. It seems they are in India only to earn money and not to be accountable to the Indian laws and constitution. I want to gently remind them that the days of East India Company are over a long time ago. India today is a sovereign country. They are welcome to do business in India, and help in the empowerment of our millions of users.
Is the government averse to criticism?
We don’t have any issue when anyone criticizes the government of India. Let them criticize Prime Minister Naredra Modi, let them ask questions. We firmly believe in that right. But give a voice to the users who are subject of abuse. We are out of it. Because of their refusal to do so, we have been constrained to initiate this legal process.
You are having a pitched battle with Twitter?
I say this to Twitter that you are an American company, and you have a huge user base here. But you are not giving any indulgence to your own users who are suffering here because of abuse. The who are you to give us a lecture on democracy? India’s democratic credentials are very, very well placed. The Constitution is there, an independent judiciary is there, and a robust media also. Also, we are accountable to the people. They do not have any proper office here, and do not even submit their numbers here.
Why did they and other social media majors not comply with guidelines within three months?
They just said that give us more time. All I can ask is whether freedom of speech bogey is a shield to delay (the new rules), and not to obey. Is it just a façade? I am saying this with a lot of responsibility. They are free to do business in India, earn profit, and enhance their user base. But they have to be accountable to the Constitution and laws of India. Having operations in India, but following the laws of America is plainly unacceptable to us.
But they are worried about criminal liability and jail for their executives for non-compliance?
I can only laugh at this suggestion. Their officer has to receive user complaint and thereafter dispose it off. Finally, this number need to be reported to the government every month. That’s all. The law kicks in only when you fail to ensure this.
What about removal of safe harbour protection, or immunity from third-party content?
Safe harbour gets removed only when the company doesn’t follow rules. If you have intentions to follow the rules, then there is no problem. Let me say emphatically that these rules are designed to empower users of social media, and are not meant to victimize the platforms. The rules give a voice to the victims of abuse.
How much more time are they asking for?
Some are asking for six months, other seek an extension of one year.
Do you think Twitter has aligned with your critics when it says it shares the concerns of civil society in India over police action and the new rules?
Are they a platform or a media group? You are a platform where you allow people to share views…how will you take a position that this idea is not to my liking but this (one) is. You take tough action when there is vandalism on Capitol Hill but when vandals and pro-terrorist elements invade Lal Quila, you don’t act. You show a part of Ladakh as part of China and we have to try for a fortnight to get it removed. When Singapore protests, its name is taken down when it is related to a (Coronavirus) variant. In India, we have to wait for a week. These double standard are not acceptable, the norms should be the same. This reluctance to have a mechanism for the users is a matter of deep concern.
How long will you wait for Twitter to comply?
You should leave it to the governing process as I don’t want to share it now. The law has already kicked in. It will not go indefinitely unpunished. Certainly, patience is not infinite. I want them to operate in India, I acknowledge that they have given a voice to the users of their platform in India and tusers can criticise the Prime Minister, me and the government. But, they have to follow the rules and laws of the country.
WhatsApp has its own issues and says that their messages are encrypted, something that they have maintained for years.
We fully respect Supreme Court judgment on privacy. But a terrorist, or a criminal or a corrupt person does not have Right to Privacy otherwise no police investigation is possible. The biggest campaigners of Right to Information have become the biggest campaigners of Right to Privacy! Privacy is the core element of an individual’s existence, namely your medical records, your matrimonial relationship, sexual preferences, your income, if you are not a public servant or a minor. We are not invading any element of privacy of WhatsApp when we are seeking information on a message that is already in circulation that resulted in an offence.
One of the arguments put forward by WhatsApp is that there is a large volume of messages exchanged every day and it may be tough to maintain records.
Aren’t Indian telecom operators and internet service providers maintaining records of such a large number of subscribers? If you have no intention to follow the rules, there are a hundred alibis. If you want to follow it, things will fall in place in a very simple way. They are technological giants.
Without a privacy law is it legally possible to enforce these regulations?
Privacy norms have been discussed by Supreme Court in great detail. I have already defined the core of privacy. These guidelines have been framed in exercise of the statutory powers of the IT Act. They are reasonable, proportionate and appropriate guidelines.
Is this a pre-emptive move by some of the platforms to get the government to water down some of the provisions of the data protection law?
We will seek to push the (data protection) Bill in the next session of Parliament. India is one of the biggest generators of data in the world. Therefore, we are keen that our data protection law is a fine beacon of protecting the rights of an individual’s consent and leading to good use of data.
We don’t have any issue when anyone criticizes the government of India. Let them criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi, let them ask questions. We firmly believe in that right. But give a voice to the users who are subject of abuse. We are out of it. Because of their refusal to do so, we have been constrained to initiate this legal process.
We fully respect Supreme Court judgment on privacy. But a terrorist, or a criminal or a corrupt person does not have Right to Privacy otherwise no police investigation is possible. The biggest campaigners of Right to Information have become the biggest campaigners of Right to Privacy! ToI