Interview | India needs a plan so we are not vulnerable to the ‘splinternet’: Rajeev Chandrasekhar

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It doesn’t matter who owns what, we have a standard set of expectations, says Minister of State for Electonics and IT

It doesn’t matter who owns what, we have a standard set of expectations, says Minister of State for Electonics and IT

Hours after billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk’s takeover of social media platform Twitter, Minister of State for Electonics and IT Rajeev Chandrasekhar spoke on the need for legislative overhaul of the 22-year old IT Act, stressing on the need to ensure that India is not vulnerable to weaponisation of the Internet.

Elon Musk has just bought social media site, Twitter. Do you have a view on it?

Our view towards intermediaries has always been the same: that all intermediaries, big or small, have to comply with our expectations of openness, safety and trust and accountability. That is why we have the law and the rules; it doesn’t matter who owns what, we have a standard set of expectations and we keep to it.

Are you happy with the IT rules and what has been achieved so far? Do we need more tightening?

The relationship between intermediaries and consumers was bereft of any framework and the rules established some accountability. Is it fully optimised, do we need a legislative overhaul, yes, we do. It is common sense that if you are in 2022 and operating on a law enacted in 2000, you need a relook since 22 years is a long time in Internet history. I think we will continue to see progress in the way we evolve the framework under which everybody on the internet can expect openness, and consumers especially women and children can expect safety and trust and accountability. Those are the basis of the thinking, not just in India but across the world.

The role and influence of Big Tech has been brought into sharp relief by the conflict between Ukraine and Russia. How do you think we should react to this?

We are going to have a trillion dollar digital economy in a few years, and a large number of businesses will be on the Indian Internet, so the Internet becomes an important economic component of our country. So if anybody has the power to unplug the Internet its not a good thing. We don’t like the idea that any country should be, could be, must be, can be, vulnerable to that kind of conduct- politically directed conduct, for any black mail directed conduct.

What can we do? We have to ensure that we cannot be unplugged; intermediaries will have to play by the rules and laws of India. The weaponisation of the Internet, or “splinternet” is something we need to plan not being vulnerable to. It is an objective for us.

How is that to be achieved?

There are many things happening and they are complex things, nothing is easy. Increasingly bilateral or multilateral arrangements between countries will have to evolve in a way that nothing can be done in isolation from other countries. A conversation has already started on these issues, on issues that technology intermediaries cannot be left unregulated, also to dispel the belief that the Internet has no boundaries, that no law of any land will be able to reach those who commit crimes in another jurisdiction whereas the victim is in another jurisdiction

What do you have to say about the relationship between intermediaries and the government — there have been frictions in the past.

Our view is very clear, Article 19(2) carves out the exceptions to freedom of speech. In cyberspace. There is jurisprudence that will move beyond 19(2) because there is also user harm. As long as it meets a certain test, that content will be taken down or the individual de-platformed. What is the test of the law that that person fails? Currently, under certain sections the government has the right to take down content, and as long as the process is transparent, it is a right that is there with every sovereign government.

A new Cyber security policy was supposed to be out…

There is clearly a need for an overall framework of laws and policies and rules. Should we move to a model where you have a new legislative framework, with the new rule-making capability that deals with all related issues in a modern, contemporary way and they are all harmoised with each other. For example, cyber security sits in a silo it will be in a silo of user harm. Nothing will be done in this ministry without public consultation. I cannot give a timeline, but the concept note and what we propose will be out as early as May.

There has been a lot of talk on Verification of accounts? What is your view?

We don’t believe verification of accounts solves anything. We already have the rules for identification of the first originator, which is in litigation, but we are clear on our position. That position is sound in law. I said in Parliament that we do not believe in verification because verification means I know who you are and that will curb your free speech. You cannot say many things if I know who you are. As a government, we don’t want to restrict your right to free speech and therefore, you can be anonymous. However, having given you that, if there is a crime, you cannot then say that we will not allow the clauses dealing with identification of first originator.


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