Buzz By The Bay: Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar Discusses India's Tech Evolution, Fake News & Free Speech

Buzz By The Bay: Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar Discusses India's Tech Evolution, Fake News & Free Speech

Chandrasekhar discusses the consultative legislative process, the government's roadmap for AI, and the delicate balance between freedom of speech and security risks.

Anushka JagtianiUpdated: Sunday, February 11, 2024, 08:49 PM IST
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In this insightful interview, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, the Union Minister of State for IT and Electronics, engages in a compelling conversation with Anushka Jagtiani, shedding light on India's tech revolution and digital economy. Amid the rapid pace of technological advancement, the Ministry for Electronics and IT takes center stage, anticipating the unveiling of the Digital India Bill this year. Chandrasekhar discusses the consultative legislative process, the government's roadmap for AI, and the delicate balance between freedom of speech and security risks. The interview delves into pressing issues like deep fakes and misinformation, emphasizing the need for stringent legislation to address these challenges.

Q: You are busy 24/7, there’s so much happening on the IT and start- up fronts and your ministry - IT and Electronics is really in the spotlight. By 2026 you envision the digital economy to constitute 20 percent of GDP?

Ans: Technology has had a transformative effect over the last 10 years in India. Even if someone is prejudiced against the govt, you can’t argue against the fact that the last 10 years have been deeply transformative and has catapulted India into a different league completely in terms of our economic capabilities and ambitions. In 2015 our PM envisioned a country where people’s lives will be transformed with the use of technology and that has happened. When he inherited the economy in 2014 we were the fragile 5 of the world. If you recall in 2014 all we heard about were scams and high inflation, low growth and investors running away from the country. That was narrative about India.

The digital economy at that time was about 4.5 percent of GDP. We are at 11 percent today and we will be at 20 percent by 26- 27. That is the goal. The innovation economy is growing today at 2.8 times faster than the regular GDP and to a large extent it is being propelled by young Indians. 

Q: Everyone is also awaiting the new Digital India Bill - it’s been 24 years since the old IT act was enacted. When can we expect the new DIB? 

I think we have made a lot of progress in creating a consensus around what the form and shape of the new act should be. About what kind of problems it should address and opportunity it should catalyze. And we did something that has never been done in the history of Indian legislation. We did a pre consultation before the legislation was even drafted. We got a lot of input from lawyers, techies, consumer, startups, big tech companies and took all of that and made a draft. Unfortunately because we were so insistent on public consultation, we have run out of time to legislate that or introduce that for public consultation before elections. I think we will have a successor legislation after the elections, when the new government is sworn in. 

Q: Some months ago the govt amended the IT rules to introduce a Fact check Unit (FCU) to identify fake news on social media platforms. Several parties including comedian Kunal Kamra and the Editors Guild of India, had challenged the IT rule as arbitrary and unconstitutional. The Bombay High Court has delivered a split verdict (on 31st Jan). One judge has ruled in favour of Kamra and the other has ruled in favour of the govt. If the govt can decide whether something is fake news or not, won’t it infringe on freedom of speech? 

Ans: I think those who argue that it could curb freedom of speech have not understood what we intended to do. As 120 crore Indians start using the internet - we are at 90 crores today - a large number of Indians today look to the internet as a place they can use for trusted transactions, trusted information, trusted content. It is the responsibility for the govt to ensure that the internet is a place that is safe and trusted. The internet cannot be a space that people believe the laws don’t extend to. What the fact check unit was going to do was in the light of a large number of instances where information was being put as fake information about the govt ( not op-eds or editorials but information)  we said a fact check unit is required. The platforms themselves said we want a way for somebody to tell us what is right and wrong when some content is posted about the govt. why this is important is in the rules today there are 11 types of unlawful content that are prohibited on the internet. And patently false information is prohibited under criminal law and IT rules. Right to free speech is not a right to spread lies. Whatever the govt does today is in harmony with the constitution and the reasonable restrictions on free speech and the criminal code.  
The FCU would guide platforms in labeling content that is false or misinformation. It would not pull down content.

Q: You have spoken about removing section 79 from the IT act, which is the provision on safe harbor. This means that social media intermediaries like facebook, instagram etc will be held liable for third party content uploaded by the users. Till now they had immunity from prosecution?

Ans: I was in the IT commitee in 2008 as a young MP when these amendments to the IT act were being talked through by the committee. And I was the sole exception to the general view that this kind of safe harbor should be given to platforms. I opposed it then for the same reasons I oppose a clean immunity with a safe harbor to platforms. Because a platform in today’s context is so  ubiquitous, and has so much power to create toxicity and virality around things that are patently false and unlawful. I recently dealt with a platform that was crammed with Csam (child sexually abusive material). And it cannot be anybody’s case that because I’m a platform, I am absolved of all accountability of the type of unlawful content that’s on the platform.  In 2008 when the then govt gave in, the argument was that I am only a platform and I have no power over the content put on me. And the people who are putting content should be held accountable for the illegality of content. Which seemed like a very nice argument till they started providing anonymity to all the users. You have a situation where these multi billion dollar platforms, which have hundreds of millions of users say we are not accountable for the stuff that goes up on our platform, and Oh by the way we will also allow all of the users who are doing unlawful stuff on our platform, anonymity. We have said fine, if you are a platform with no content creation ability and capability. And you can prove you are a dumb platform, that has no intention to allow unlawful content then you will  get safe harbor.

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