Government Caught Unawares, Yet Again!

Indian government’s ignorance and lackadaisical attitude is in focus once again with February 9, 2016 approaching near. It is the date when the government will yet again have to explain its agreements with social media sites that it is increasingly using for information dissemination. Early last year, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by a former BJP leader had raised questions on the use of social media by the government. Since then the government, especially the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, is at pains to explain its agreements with various mobile application and social media sites like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, WhatsApp and LinkedIn that the government is using for reaching out to the public.

When this PIL came up, as expected, the government was caught on the wrong side of the (Internet) history. Clueless as to the significance of the PIL and ramifications of its actions, the government scurried to understand its agreements with the various sites. Much to the chagrin of many, the government nonchalantly pointed out that it did not have any special agreements with any of these sites and it just entered into standard agreements like the common man did. Recently, the government filed on record a content license agreement that it had entered into with Google Ireland in 2013, that did not really help its case much.

The Delhi High Court pulled up the government and asked if it understood the repercussions of its actions. Did it understand that it was transferring all its Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to these sites for worldwide usage without any royalty fee? Did it understand that it was putting personal data of its citizens like their names, email ids, addresses, mobile numbers, etc at risk by sharing them with a third-party that had a legal right to use them? Did it understand that the people whose data was being shared, wanted and expected it to be kept private? Did it understand the types of uses that the sites could put the data to? Did it understand the types of agreements other countries entered into with such sites to protect its citizens? In short, did the government even understand technology that it was conveniently using? The answers to these questions are anybody’s guess.

It is ironical that the same government that sends its police to arrest innocent citizens for expressing their views in the online world, is clueless about the other side of the coin that entails it to handle the online world with caution. In cases of the former, the government and the police often referred to Section 66A of the Information Technology Act, 2000 (which was struck down by the Supreme Court last year) and Sections 153 and 505 of the Indian Penal Code. It is surprising that the same government is unaware about Section 43A of the IT Act, 2000 that lays down security measures to be followed while dealing with sensitive, or personal information in the online world. Clearly, the government has faltered on this end, then why have no arrests been made? Is this not a graver threat to our society than an innocuous ‘like’ that a friend clicks on a Facebook post about a general comment on the country’s politics? It seems for the powerful, crimes are those that others commit!

It is strange that when it comes to data about itself, the government is very proactive. Transparency reports of various sites like Google and Facebook claim that the Indian government ranks in the top five when it comes to requests for deletion of content about it, or requests for user data. It is common knowledge that the government tries its best to get down any content that is critical of its supporters. Other commonly cited reasons are defamation, religious offence, obscenity and hate speech. In fact, even the Indian law enforcement agencies are very proactive in seeking data about its users. However, when it comes to data of the common man, it is caught napping. The recent lapse by the Telecom and Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) by willingly releasing the email ids of over a million Internet users, who responded to its call for views on Net Neutrality, is yet another example of how careless the government is when it comes to its citizens’ data. Double standards indeed!

It has been almost a year since the government realised its fault (if such a mild word can be attributed to such a grave act). Instead of giving sloppy excuses, the government should have immediately put its house in order. It could have entered into special agreements with these social media sites and mobile application service providers, and explained to the public the remedial action that it had taken. All this could have been done in under a month, but the reality is that almost a year since the PIL was filed, not much has changed. I guess the government takes its citizens for granted as it understands the people do not have any alternatives, as one is as worse as the other. In a country where the majority is still fighting for two square meals a day and where issues like caste still matter while voting, the Internet-related policies can easily take a backseat. Wish this was not the case, yet it is. Till then, our data – our private data – is at the mercy of a few companies from the developed nations; and all we can do is ‘hope’ that it is not misused. What a pity!

(Shobhika Puri is a freelance writer.)

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