Social media platforms like Google, Facebook, WhatsApp, Linked In, Telegram and others, except Twitter, on Friday agreed to abide by the Indian government’s new IT regulations. These platforms have decided to appoint chief compliance officer, nodal contact person and resident grievance officer, to look into complaints from the public and dispose them of within 15 days. Twitter, on Friday, offered to appoint an outside consultant, a lawyer working in a firm in India as its nodal contact person and grievance officer, but this was outrightly rejected by the Information Technology Ministry. There are 53 crore WhatsApp users, 41 crore Facebook users and nearly 1.75 crore Twitter users in India.
On Friday night, in my prime time show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’, I had a long interview with Law, Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad about the present controversy involving social media platforms. Prasad was emphatic in asserting that any foreign company, doing business inside India, will have to follow Indian laws. He pointed out that top bosses of Facebook, Twitter and Google have appeared before the US Senate and UK House of Commons in the recent past, and that if they can follow the American and British laws, they should also follow Indian laws too. There should be no scope for double standards, Prasad said.
The IT Minister also said that if these companies can share user data with others, why can’t they share data relating to criminal cases with Indian law enforcement agencies. Prasad questioned: if one agrees to the assumption that these companies are mere facilitators or intermediaries, then how can they make judgement about content posted on their platforms. How can they arrogate to themselves the right to decide which content is acceptable and which one is not? He said, If social media companies decide about content, then they will have to tell investigation agencies the basis on which they took such judgements. Prasad also spoke about the role of ‘fact checkers’ appointed by companies like Twitter in this regard. Throughout the interview, he was unequivocal in his stand and issued a stern message: “There can be no compromise on the issue of India’s sovereignty. Our laws, our Constitution shall prevail.”
Here is the full interview, translated from Hindi, with the Law, Communications and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in my show ‘Aaj Ki Baat’ on Friday night:
Question: More than 75 crore Indians use smartphones and have access to WhatsApp and Facebook. There are speculations that the government may win up WhatsApp operations in India.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Rajat Ji, I want to tell all our countrymen, they should not have any apprehension about use of WhatsApp on their phones. Neither shall we stop them from using WhatsApp, nor shall we block their opinions. We are only focusing on a very simple issue. The government has the right to know the origin of the messages on WhatsApp that are related to crime, national security, crime against women, sexual violence, etc. WhatsApp will have the reveal the identity of the originator of such messages. There were messages relating to mob lynching and Delhi riots. Several messages during Delhi riots from across the border. WhatsApp will have to tell us who sent those messages. If WhatsApp can reveal the identity of originator in the US, UK or Canada, it can also reveal the same here, in India. We respect the Right to Privacy. After the Supreme Court judgement, I had myself addressed a press conference and welcomed the judgement. The Supreme Court had clearly said that those indulging in crime, corruption or terrorism have no right to privacy. Otherwise it will be difficult to prevent crimes.
Question: They have said the new IT rules are a dangerous invasion of privacy for WhatsApp users.
Question: But WhatsApp and Facebook are sister companies, what is the harm in sharing user data between them?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Both companies may be connected with each other, but if you are writing on WhatsApp, how can they share messages sent by users with others? We are clear on the point of these four main topics. If a crime has been committed, WhatsApp may share with law enforcers the origin of the messages. Tell me, during Delhi anti-CAA protests, did not provocative messages on WhatsApp play a big role in fomenting riots? People lost their lives, properties were damaged..
Question: You are right. There were also incidents of mob lynching, which were due to provocative messages shared on WhatsApp.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Rajat Ji, I get news from all over India. In South India, a woman was burnt to death because of message saying that she used to steal children. Were the messages true? I get appeals from a mother almost daily, complaining that obscene videos of her daughter are being circulated by her ex-boyfriend. Should I remain silent? That is the question. You spoke about Twitter. We will not compromise on the issue of India’s digital sovereignty. Can we allow Twitter to circulate map showing Ladakh as part of China? Should it take 10 days to remove that map? They blocked Donald trump’s Twitter account when the US Capitol Hill in Washington was attacked by rioters. In India, when people brandishing swords climb up the Red Fort and attack policemen in the name of farmer protests, you will call it freedom of expression? Red Fort is our national heritage, the Prime Minister addresses the nation from there. These are double standards.
Question: You used harsh words against Twitter by saying India’s image is being sought to be tarnished.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Why not? What was Hashtag Modi about? Did the tool kit come from outside or not? Tell me. You yourself showed that news. There are 100 to 125 crore users of these platforms. You do business in India, allow people to express their opinion, we are not against it. You are free to criticize the Prime Minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, but if you follow double standards, then you must have to follow Indian laws, our Constitution. We will not allow you to work like East India Company. People were saying, where should we complain, where are the names or phone numbers?
Question: Twitter officials have complained that the government is using intimidation tactics through Delhi Police.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Delhi Police has already replied to that. The Congress party had raised the issue of a tool kit and now they are running away from probe. As per Indian laws, if investigation begins in a case, it is the duty of individuals or institutions to cooperate in the probe. Police did not threaten them, but only told them if they have information to share, please do so. Why shouldn’t they cooperate in the probe?
Question: Won’t they fear if police visit them in their office?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Police had issued them summons. They did not appear and then police goes and tells them about the summons. What is wrong in that? I am saying this again, all of them, including Twitter, are welcome to do business in India but then they will have to follow Indian Constitution and laws.
Question: I fully agree that if they have to do business in India they must follow Indian laws, but on the issue under discussion, Twitter had said they had kept many fact checkers who check the veracity of facts.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Rajatji, since you have raised this, let me complete. Twitter is a platform, it has roughly two crore users, who exchange views on that platform. If you are a platform, you also try to clip the wings of opinion and regulate them. At whose instance? Fact checkers? Rajatji, please ask your team to find out who these fact checkers and from where do they get their money. Is it necessary to hate Modi in order to become a fact checker? I am not naming anybody. Just go and check the profile of all these fact checkers. Their only aim is to find out what to do in order to criticize Modi, and among those who fund these fact checkers, many of them are openly taking part in anti-India activities. Please tell me the names of those whom they have appointed, their phone numbers, what are the benchmarks on which they have been selected. There is nothing to show before the public and yet they claim, we have done the tests. Tell me, you head the News Broadcasters Association? Your name is publicly known. Anybody having grievance can approach your association. If a complaint is found valid, you take action, if it is found invalid, you reject it.
Question: We regularly tell viewers about fake or true viral messages. If any content is posted on Twitter, we do a fact check and tell viewers which one to trust and which not to trust. Many viewers contact us to find out whether a particular news is true or fake.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Then I can now say even Rajat Sharma has to keep fact checkers to find out whether a news is true or fake. All these happened because of the Supreme Court verdicts in 2018 and 2019, in Pranjal case and Facebook case. In the 2019 case, Supreme Court clearly said that social media companies must share the identity of the originator of message, in cases involving terrorism, sexual assault, women’s dignity, etc. In 2018, our MPs had taken a commitment from me in Parliament action will be taken over fake news, insult of women, and sexual assault of children. I had given this promise at that time.Rajya Sabha chairperson Venkaiah Naidu, at the instance of members in the House, set up an all party parliamentary committee which went through the court’s recommendations, suggestions from MPs and had a detailed discussion. Well, Rajat Ji, you keep fact checkers. If a mother appeals to me to stop circulation of obscene visuals of her daughter by her ex-boyfriend, should I say no to her? This was the major issue, for which no fresh legislation was required. These companies should have done on their own, but they had their own standards to decide whether a content was manipulated or not. How can you describe Ladakh as part of China? It was Twitter’s duty to check.
Question: The impression that is being given is that Twitter named some content posted by a BJP leader as manipulated, and that made you angry, and you want to deny them of their freedom of expression.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: I want to say it again politely that on February 25, when we brought the new IT guidelines for social media platforms, was there any tool kit controversy at that time? Did we make these guidelines only for Twitter, or for all social media platforms? You know, most of them have complied with. Indian media firms, including Koo. I was pained because of their double standards. Twitter or Facebook could have framed this on their own. Let me given one example. In 2015, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg brought this Free Basics platform for India. Zuckerberg is a talented man, he has done lot of good work across the world, I respect him a lot. I met him four or five times. He sought our permission to launch Free Basics. I told him, let me go through it. I came to know that once anybody joins Free Basics, they can use only a single door to join it. We said, no, India is a democracy, we believe in several doors of entry, we cannot allow our people to make entry only through a single door. I did not give Facebook the permission. Under Digital India mission, we have made inclusivity as our universally accepted standard. So that each can have its voice. I will not speak much about Twitter. Let me repeat what I said yesterday. It is a foreign for-profit company, I have no objection. But let them not give us homily about freedom of speech and expression in Indian democracy. This freedom arises from our Constitution, our great heritage and our judiciary. You are asking me questions here. I respect your freedom to question.
Question: There is talk doing the rounds that those who will speak against the government, will be gagged.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: This is baseless. This government has seen individuals like Narendra Modi, late Arun Jaitely, late Sushma Swaraj, Venkaiah Naidu, Rajnath Singh and Ravi Shankar Prasad, and in media, Rajat Sharma. Why did these people face lathis, go to jail? Because they were opposing the Emergency. They were imprisoned because they fought for freedom of media and the people. So, we are among those who under the leadership of Lok Nayak Jaya Prakash Narayan fought for freedom of people. Now when people say that their voices are being crushed, I can only smile and reply: Look at our Prime Minister. He has been facing calumnies and false allegations since the last twenty years. Some people only believe in “Hate Modi”. But if people elect us every time, what can we do? You were speaking about Twitter. When the ‘Singapore variant’ started trending, Singapore government objected, and they removed it within an hour. When the second wave of pandemic was being named as ‘Modi variant’ by some Congress leaders, what did Rahul say? Movid? What does it mean? It was Twitter’s job to stop. Use the name given by WHO. Do they need us to tell them this point? We had to issue notice, and then it was removed after 3-4 days.
Question: But Rahul Gandhi is using Twitter daily, today he said Modi is doing ‘nautanki’ over vaccine issue.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Some people used to do politics through Twitter, nowadays they are doing politics only on Twitter. But the people defeat them during elections. Let them vent out their spleen on Twitter, but the words that are being used are unfortunate.
Question: Twitter has alleged that there were many which they were forced to block under pressure from government. Is this true?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: There is such a provision under Section 69 of Information Technology Act. This was brought during Dr Manmohan Singh’s rule. Rajat Ji, at least come to me once to have a cup of tea, I will show you some tweets and then ask, what should I do as IT Minister? Allow riots to continue? Allow people to fight in the streets? Allow the nation to face losses? Nowadays it has become a fashion to criticize editors, judges, everyone on Twitter. Politicians get abuses daily. If somebody launches a new business, competitors start criticizing it so much, that the business collapses. These people come to me and ask: whom should we approach to lodge our complaint? Let me say it again: Supreme Court had said in its Pranjal case verdict in 2018 “frame the guidelines quickly”. In the Facebook case, the court said, the originator of messages must be traced.
Question: You’re right, there are so many fake accounts on Twitter, about which nobody knows. Anybody can abuse another by opening a fake account. Will this be put to a stop now?
Ravi Shankar Prasad: I discussed this with them myself. I told them you must set up a user verification mechanism. The government is not involved in this. You verify the accounts yourselves. Put a tick mark, once an account is verified, so that others can know that this account is verified. People will also come to know who the man with big moustaches is? And those, who accounts are not verified, will get exposed. Does it need a UPSC level preparation to appoint a grievance officer, a nodal officer and a compliance officer? They are private companies, they can easily appoint. If there are complaints, dispose them of within 15 days. If you block somebody’s account, at least give that person a hearing. The government is nowhere involved in this.
Question: You’re right. Like we have the NBSA (News Broadcasting Standards Authority) for news broadcasters. All complaints go to the grievance officer, and the broadcaster has to send reply. There is an independent judge who decides the complaint on merits. The same should be the case here.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: Was there any need to bring new legislation? I feel good when people use their smart phones to send messages in this time of Corona. But if they have a complaint, should they have to go to USA? How can they have such a view about India?
Question: Throughout the world, they will have to follow the local laws.
Ravi Shankar Prasad: They support all those laws. Here after we exerted pressure, they agreed to appoint a grievance officer. You know where? In Ireland. Nobody even knows his name. The law is: bring your staff who knows the working of your system, so that he can dispose of all grievances. Whom did Twitter appoint? A lawyer. Do you call this compliance of law? You make your earnings in India, your users can criticize the government, but you must follow the Constitution of India and the laws framed under it.
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India’s Number One and the most followed Super Prime Time News Show ‘Aaj Ki Baat – Rajat Sharma Ke Saath’ was launched just before the 2014 General Elections. Since its inception, the show is redefining India’s super-prime time and is numerically far ahead of its contemporaries.