The Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, stated on May 26 that the Government of India would ensure that consumers always had access to platforms that are accountable to them in the digital world and that their rights to a secure internet connection would not be compromised or diminished.
The Rajeev Chandrasekhar noted that big tech platforms pretended to be innovative for years while abusing their market dominance, necessitating an overhaul of the regulatory and legal frameworks. The Digital India Bill will replace the two-decades-old Information Technology Act.
While talking to the media, the minister said, “…it is a commitment that we have to the people of India…1.2 billion Indians who are going to use the Indian Internet, that we will keep the Internet open for them. We will deliver safety and trust on the Internet for them. And we will make sure that regardless of whether you’re a big tech or small tech, Indian or foreign that consumers will always have their platforms accountable to them”. In the tech and digital world, he said, “change” is normal.
Chandrashekhar stated, “As we look to the future, and we look to the past, disruptions are going to be increasingly normal…So, we are essentially creating these laws or rules to help make this movement forward, as non-disruptive as possible”.
For many years now, huge internet companies like search engines and social media platforms have, in a way, evaded regulation from governments all over the world “because they masqueraded as innovation”.
Consumers and most governments around the globe are learning that these big platforms have drawbacks in addition to their positive effects. For instance, they might speed up users’ searches, but they might also track their movements.
The minister said, “…as the competition commission has recently pointed out…certainly, they (digital platforms) allow you to do many things more efficiently, but they’re also certainly misusing the market power and market dominance”.
As per the Government of India’s approach, platforms must continue improving citizens’ lives rather than taking advantage of them or their data for profit. Chandrashekhar stated, “So, there are many things that are wrong about the big tech platforms even as they masquerade as innovations, and they do good…And therefore, these guardrail approaches that we are taking…the prism of user harm is the basic principle of making sure that regardless of whether you’re big tech or small tech, foreign or Indian (platform), the Indian digital nagrik, the Indian consumers’ rights to data protection and privacy, and of having a safe Internet, will never be compromised, will never be diluted”.
The IT Act was passed in 2000, but the Internet has changed significantly since then. He said, “Internet in 2000, when the IT Act was enacted, and the Internet in 2022-2023, from a complexity, diversity, risk and harm point of view…they are two very different animals. And therefore, it is certainly clear…that a legislative framework that dealt with the benign Internet and Internet that only did good, that legislative framework is certainly not going to be useful in an era where the Internet is not just good, but it is also bad”.
The Internet of today is complicated and full of layers that damage users. The minister said, “It is certainly not about the Internet having only one intermediary, which connects the user to the Internet. Now, there are many, many different types of intermediaries with very different characteristics of benefits, harms, risks, etc”.
Challenges in the digital sphere include accountability and algorithmic biases. Chandrashekhar said, “The Digital India Act is an Act that proposes to address these issues. But we will not address this by making it very complex to resemble the complexity of the Internet. It will be based on the simple principle that the Internet should always be open, and there should be no disruption of the choice that Indian consumer has. Nobody should be able to assert or use or misuse their market power to distort choices”.
The minister asserted that the Internet must be safe and reliable since 120 crore Indians—old and young, women and men—will all utilise it in their daily lives for pensions, other benefits, education, and skill-building. He said, “We cannot afford to have our Internet to be anything but safe and trusted where anybody who does user harm is immediately identified and held accountable under the law. So, we are moving from an era of a very simple Internet to a very complex Internet, from an era of the Internet doing good to the Internet as much as representing bad and therefore, the legislative framework is going from IT Act to Digital India Act”.
He stated that it is a “legitimate question” to ask and “a conversation worth having” whether social media platforms should have any safe harbour provisions, “When publishers…today are held accountable for the content they have, post, create, under the laws of the land, what is so special about a platform that makes it exempt, and therefore denies its users recourse to natural justice if there is something that is wrong, which is patently false, which is creating harm, which is defamatory”.
The reasons why platforms shouldn’t have that immunity and why users aren’t completely protected in these situations “is a conversation worth having,” the minister said. Chandrasekhar emphasised, “We are inclined to believe today in the conversation that we’ve had with various stakeholders that the government, which is playing the role of an arbiter between the platforms that have this harmful content and the user who’s aggrieved by the content, the government should step aside”.
When a user wants to sue a platform because they feel its content has wronged them, the dispute should be resolved by the legal system and the law of the land, not by the Government. He noted, “The Government is, in a sense, wittingly or unwittingly placed itself in the middle by giving section 79 and safe harbour immunity to these platforms. So, I think it’s worth having a discussion about that in this day and age when the Internet is increasingly getting more and more complex, 120 crore Indians are going to be online, platforms are going to evolve and grow, and new ones are going to come, should the Government be placing itself in the middle of this”.
Currently, there is a stir among the platforms because the safe harbour clauses are being questioned. Chandrashekhar stated, “…but as I explained it to them, as I explain to the consumers and other user organisations, people are beginning to understand the logic of what I’m saying, which is why should the government at all be protecting the platforms…the platforms should start evolving a model where the relationship with their consumers is one where they are accountable, and therefore their own content moderation strategies are aligned to the consumers”.
Chandrashekhar also talked about the Digital India Act during Digital India Dialogues in Mumbai on May 23. It is pertinent to note that the proposed law will be a crucial tenet of the framework for global cyber law that the government is developing to spur India’s aspirations for a digital economy. The other components of this framework will be the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, National Data Governance Framework policy, the most recent IT Rules amendments, and CERT-In guidelines.
India considered the requirement of amending their legal framework for regulating information technology because of the concerns raised against AI-enabled platforms, such as ChatGPT, and authorities in many places, including Europe and the US, have advocated for AI regulations.
After the privacy invasion of Twitter employee Foad Dabiri which went viral this month, Union Minister Rajeev Chandrashekhar said that this incident is quite alarming as it’s a breach of privacy, and the Government will examine it. He tweeted, “This is an unacceptable breach n violation of privacy. We will be examinig this immdtly and will act on any violation of privacy even as new Digital Personal Data Protection bill DPDP is being readied”.
While interacting with the media this month, Union IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw expressed his concern about Artificial Intelligence and said that the Union Government is reportedly considering a framework for AI regulation that addresses issues such as algorithm bias and copyrights, “The whole world is looking at what should be the framework, and what should be the regulatory setup. In G7, all digital ministers (of G7 countries) are seriously concerned about what should be the regulatory framework. So, this is a global thing. This is not one country’s issue. This has to be looked at from the international perspective”.