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The rules protect the rights of users, they were framed because the giants of social networks did not: the minister of IT and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News

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NEW DELHI: Minister of IT and Law Ravi Shankar Prasadbeen in the thick of things like the new guidelines for social media became a flash point for a showdown between the government Y Twitter and WhatsApp on privacy and freedom of expression issues. He speaks to Sidhartha Y Pankaj doval on why the rules are not an attempt to muzzle dissenting opinion, but rather an attempt to protect the rights of social media users and ensure accountability by big tech. Excerpts:
There is an impression that the government is playing babysitter on social media. Why is this so and why are social media companies angry at the government?
I reject this question. The central problem is that these patterns did not appear suddenly. First, there are two Supreme Court rulings: the 2018 Prajwala case regarding child pornography and the September 2019 Facebook case against the Union of India. In the second case, the Supreme Court said that it is imperative that there is a properly structured regime to find out the people, institutions and organizations that are the originators of said content messages … it may be necessary to obtain such information from intermediaries. Also, in 2018, there was a debate in Rajya Sabha about fake news where I had to commit to framing the guidelines.

The rules protect the rights of users, they were framed because the giants of social networks did not: the minister of IT and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News

There have also been countless questions in each session of Parliament, and Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu had established a committee of parliamentarians that gave recommendations on the issue of child sexual abuse. Also in these guidelines, we seek the widest possible consultations. We received hundreds of comments and feedback, including from interested parties. So remove the impression that we are babysitters. We are not.
So why did the guidelines come?
This is based on the demand of the people, the directions of the courts, and the command of Parliament and its committees. If a distraught mother complains about the revenge porn her daughter has been subjected to, she should ask them to go to America, as Twitter says. If a woman complains about a transformed image, what should I do? Today, not only political leaders suffer criticism day after day, but also journalists, editors, judges and even businessmen who are trolled. Therefore, the focus of the rules is more on the abuse and misuse of social media, not the use of social media. Victims of abuse should have a forum for redress for their grievances. That is the main core of the rules.

The rules protect the rights of users, they were framed because the giants of social networks did not: the minister of IT and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News

So why was there a problem with the big social media companies?
On February 25, we notified the new guidelines in the bulletin and gave important intermediaries a three-month period to comply, which included appointing compliance officers, handling complaints, and being a nodal person. Do we ask for the moon? Do you need to take a UPSC-type IAS exam to recruit these officers? In fact, they shouldn’t have expected the rules.
The complaint redress mechanism exists even in print media and broadcasters. On a more fundamental question: you will make tons of money here, you will make good income here, you will have close to two million Twitter users and almost 100 million million across all platforms combined. But to file a complaint, a user must go to the police or go to the United States, where the name of the complaint officer is not even known. It seems that they are in India only to make money and not to be accountable to the Indian laws and constitution. I want to kindly remind you that the days of the East India Company are long over. India today is a sovereign country. You are welcome to do business in India and help in the empowerment of our millions of users.

The rules protect the rights of users, they were framed because the giants of social networks did not: the minister of IT and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News

Is the government averse to criticism?
We have no problem when someone criticizes the government of India. Criticize Prime Minister Naredra Modi, ask questions. We firmly believe in that right. But give a voice to users who are being abused. We are out of it. Due to your refusal to do so, we have been forced to initiate this legal process.
Having a free-for-all with Twitter?
I tell Twitter that you are an American company and that you have a large user base here. But it is not giving any kind of indulgence to its own users who are suffering here due to abuse. Who are you to give us a conference on democracy? India’s democratic credentials are very, very well placed. The Constitution is there, an independent judiciary and also a solid media. Furthermore, we are accountable to the people. They don’t have any proper offices here, and they don’t even send their numbers here.
Why didn’t they and other social media specialists meet the guidelines within three months?
They just said that it gives us more time. All I can ask is if the specter of free speech is a shield to delay (the new rules) and not obey. Is it just a facade? I say it with great responsibility. They are free to do business in India, make profit and improve 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 the United States is clearly unacceptable to us.

The rules protect the rights of users, they were framed because the giants of social networks did not: the minister of IT and law, Ravi Shankar Prasad | India News

But are you worried about criminal liability and jail time for your executives for non-compliance?
I can only laugh at this suggestion. Your officer has to receive the user’s complaint and then get rid of it. Finally, this number must be reported to the government every month. That’s all. The law comes into force only when this cannot be guaranteed.
What about removing safe harbor protection or third party content immunity?
The safe harbor is removed only when the company does not follow the rules. If you intend to follow the rules, then no problem. Let me emphatically state that these rules are designed to empower social media users and not to victimize platforms. Rules give a voice to victims of abuse.
How much more time are they asking for?
Some ask for six months, others seek a one-year extension.
Do you think Twitter has sided with its critics when it says it shares the concerns of civil society in India about police action and the new rules?
Are they a platform or a media group? You are a platform where you allow people to share points of view … how can you assume that this idea is not to my liking but this (one) is? You take tough measures when there is vandalism on Capitol Hill, but when vandals and pro-terrorist elements invade Lal Quila, you don’t act. It shows a part of Ladakh as part of China and we have to try for fifteen days to eliminate it. When Singapore protests, its name is removed when it is related to a variant (Coronavirus). In India, we have to wait a week. These double standards are not acceptable, the rules should be the same. This reluctance to have a mechanism for users is a matter of deep concern.
How long will you wait for Twitter to comply?
I should leave it up to the governance process, as I don’t want to share it now. The law has already been put into action. It will not go unpunished indefinitely. Certainly, patience is not infinite. I want them to operate in India, I recognize that they have given voice to the users of their platform in India and that users can criticize the Prime Minister, me and the government. But they have to follow the rules and laws of the country.
WhatsApp has its own problems and says that their messages are encrypted, something they have maintained for years.
Regular WhatsApp users have nothing to fear, and that is a clear and categorical guarantee on my part. Which means person-to-person messages, doctors to their patients, lawyers to their clients, journalists to their sources, we have no complaints. I am not the information minister who makes life uncomfortable for the Indians. We seek only limited information. Only when a message that is already in public circulation is generating violence, affecting the unity and integrity of India, showing a woman in very bad light or sexual abuse of a child, and when other intrusive options do not work, only then will WhatsApp require reveal who started the nuisance. They are sharing it in the United States, there was a joint statement by the Americans, the British Prime Minister. In your latest privacy policy, haven’t you said that you will share data with Facebook and other business entities? What’s up with the privacy? When FB shared data with Cambridge Analytica, was privacy respected?
We fully respect the Supreme Court ruling on privacy. But a terrorist, a criminal or a corrupt person has no right to privacy; otherwise, a police investigation is not possible. The greatest defenders of the right to information have become the greatest defenders of the right to privacy! Privacy is the central element of an individual’s existence, namely his medical records, his marital relationship, sexual preferences, his income, if he is not a public servant or a minor. We are not invading any privacy features of WhatsApp when we search for information about a message that is already in circulation that resulted in a violation.
One of the arguments used by WhatsApp is that a large volume of messages are exchanged every day and it can be difficult to keep records.
Don’t telecom operators and ISPs in India keep records of such a high number of subscribers? If you don’t intend to follow the rules, there are a hundred alibis. If you want to follow him, things will fit in a very simple way. They are technological giants.
Without a privacy law, is it legally possible to enforce these regulations?
Privacy rules have been discussed in great detail by the Supreme Court. I have already defined the core of privacy. These guidelines have been framed in the exercise of the statutory powers of the IT Law. They are reasonable, proportionate and appropriate guidelines.
Is this a preventive measure of some of the platforms for the government to dilute some of the provisions of the data protection law?
We will try to push forward the bill (on data protection) in the next session of Parliament. India is one of the largest data generators in the world. Therefore, we are interested in our data protection law being a good beacon to protect an individual’s consent rights and lead to good use of data.
We have no problem when someone criticizes the government of India. Criticize Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ask questions. We firmly believe in that right. But give a voice to users who are being abused. We are out of it. Due to your refusal to do so, we have been forced to initiate this legal process.
We fully respect the Supreme Court ruling on privacy. But a terrorist, a criminal or a corrupt person has no right to privacy; otherwise, a police investigation is not possible. The greatest defenders of the right to information have become the greatest defenders of the right to privacy!



Times of India

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