In an interaction with Republic World’s Arnab Goswami at the India Global Forum, India’s former Minister for Law, Justice, Communications, Electronics and IT Ravi Shankar Prasad reiterates his government’s position on regulating social media companies and reassures that the Modi government is not trying to curb free speech and dissent.
There has to a harmonious balance between the autonomy of social media platforms and the obligations of an independent, sovereign nation, like India, Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s Minister for Law, Justice, Communications, Electronics and IT, said at the India Global Forum.
Prasad was speaking to Arnab Goswami, Editor-in-Chief of Republic TV, during a session at the India Global Forum titled Big Tech & Democracy – The Global Policy Challenge. Republic World were the media partners for the event.
Stating that achieving this balance is the real challenge, Prasad added: “If democracy is to grow, there must be accountability, digital sovereignty, democracy, dissent and the ability to ask questions. This is the larger debate when you talk of Big Tech and Democracy.
Asserting that users of social media platforms have complete freedom to ask questions of everybody, he said they can be a bit rabid at time, but since India is a democracy, they have all the right to ask questions.
Full freedom to ask questions
“Let me categorically state: They can criticise Ravi Shankar Prasad, they can criticise the Prime Minister… with full freedom. They can ask any questions,” he said.
Addressing concerns that the Indian government is muzzling free speech and dissent, he said: “The issue is not one of use of social media, but one of misuse and abuse of social media. What should I do when a harassed mother tells me her daughter’s ex-boyfriend is circulating intimate photographs? What should I do when a woman complains that her photographs are being morphed and circulated? What should I do when journalists and businessmen say they are baselessly defamed on social media? Even judges are being trolled.
What India’s social media intermediary norms say
“This issue had to be addressed. As a minister in India, I’m accountable to the people of India. That’s very important. Thereafter, the widest consultations were held and we came out with guidelines that state that if you’re a significant social media intermediary, namely, you’re having a user base of 5 million-plus, you must set up, in India, a grievance redressal officer based in India who people can approach if they want to lodge a complaint.”
Further, he explained, these intermediaries must have a compliance officer who will place in the public domain the number of complaints received and the number addressed. And they must have a nodal officer, who the law enforcement agencies can contact.
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Turning to an issue that has raised the hackles of a number of people in India, Prasad said: “I’ve noticed one thing: Some of these social media platforms say they’re bound by American laws. That leads to a larger question: They operate in India; they make good money in India. Yet, when a harassed woman complains, they tell her to go to America… This is plainly not acceptable. They have to be accountable to the Indian Constitution and Indian laws.”
Neutral platforms versus content regulators
He also drew attention to a larger question that not only India but democracies across the world are having to grapple with. Are these social media intermediaries mere platforms that don’t have any control over content or are they regulators that actively curate posts and take editorial calls on what is acceptable and what is not?
In response to a question from Goswami on India’s digital journey, Prasad said: “India’s digital story is a remarkable one. I remember when Prime Minister Modi was contesting for the office in 2014, he unveiled a vision: IT + IT = IT, which means India’s talent plus information technology equals India tomorrow.”
Digital India empowering poor and underprivileged
Incidentally, Prasad has been India’s IT minister through both of Modi’s terms as Prime Minister. Giving an overview of India’s achievements under his watch, he said: “We launched Digital India on July 1, 2015. Six years later, what have we achieved? Out of India’s population of 1.3 billion, 1.29 billion people have Aadhaar cards, a digital identity to supplement people’s physical identity that backed by law with regard to privacy. India is home to 1.18 billion phones. It is home to 750 million smartphones, which are mobile computers. And we have nearly 750 million internet connections.”
Digital India, he added, is empowering ordinary Indians using the power of technology and bridging the digital divide. Most importantly, it is ushering in digital inclusion for the poor and the underprivileged.
Tech-enabled money transfers saved government $24 billion
Giving statistics to buttress his assertion, he said the government facilitated the opening of 400 million new bank accounts for the poor linked with their Aadhaar, their digital identity, and their mobile phones and started all the welfare dues directly into these bank accounts. This is known as Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT).
“We have transferred close to $227 billion into these accounts. This mechanism of transferring funds has saved the government $24 billion that was earlier being siphoned off by middlemen and fictitious beneficiaries,” he said.
Prasad informed that India has among the cheapest internet charges in the world. “The country has given a big boost to e-payments. Today, you have e-visas, as many as 1,000 agricultural markets are linked through the e-portal. Then, there’s e-education, e-healthcare. During Covid, when there was no rail movement, no flights, etc., it was the work of the IT Department that allowed work from home in such a big way,” he said.
India has world’s third-biggest start-up eco-system
The Indian IT Minister reiterated that the country has among the biggest start-up movements in the world. It has 50,000 start-ups, the third-biggest in the world. Earlier, there were only four Indian unicorns; now, there are 51.
Sharing more statistics on the strides India has made in the field of IT and electronics under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he said: “In electronic manufacturing, India had just two mobile phone factories in 2014. Now, there are 260 mobile phone factories in the country. All the biggest mobile phone manufacturers in the world have come to India. And India has received FDI worth $26 billion in computers, hardware, etc.
“I’m happy to share with you that India is one of the biggest countries hosting all the social media platforms. We have 530 million WhatsApp users, 448 million YouTube users, 410 million Facebook subscribers, 210 million Instagram users and nearly 18 million Twitter users.”
Big Tech has to be accountable
Returning to the hot button topic of the day – the ongoing tussle that democracies across the world are having with Big Tech companies, he asserted: “If democracy has to survive, misinformation, fake news, exclusive material, I will say, colluded material… all these are challenges. I’m not in favour of censoring. But democracies have to find some common ground… so that these Big Tech companies do their business, earn good money, good profit but become accountable. This can only happen if they learn to follow the law of the land in which they operate.”
Taking a dig at activists who have been vocally critical of the Modi government’s efforts to rein in Big Tech companies, Prasad said: “In India, the biggest campaigners for the Right to Information have become the biggest advocates of the Right to Privacy. Those who wanted what I write in my file to be known have become the biggest campaigners for the Right to Privacy. Good luck to them… Article 19.1 (of the Indian Constitution) guarantees freedom of speech and expression. Granted! But Article 19.2 is also there: It says reasonable restrictions can be put (on free speech) in pursuit of sovereignty, integrity and security of India and also for defamation, etc.”
The non-negotiable bottom line
Prasad pointedly dismissed allegations that he was trying to curb political dissent. “Let me assure everybody, we believe in democracy. Social media companies are welcome to do business in India, earn tons of money, let their subscribers ask us questions, criticise the PM, the law minister and anybody else… BUT they have to respect India’s digital sovereignty its laws,” he asserted once again.