“We [the government] shall never allow the abuse of Indian data by foreign powers or foreign companies”, IT, telecom and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said during a short duration discussion in the Rajya Sabha yesterday. Trinamool MP Derek O’Brien had moved the House to bring in electoral reforms and accused social media companies such as Facebook of being “cheat India platforms”, saying that international companies cannot participate in India’s elections. He said that these companies got immunity from intermediary liabilities after the 2008 amendments to the IT Act and urged the government to revisit it.

Issues raised by Derek O’Brien

Data misuse and right to privacy

O’Brien said that his party would soon issue a notice about how certain companies use a “Jarvis-like” technology to misuse government data and target voters. He also questioned the government’s narrative about the increased percentage of women voters in the recently concluded general elections, and alleged that the government targeted women – and gave them gas cylinders – because of the data that was available with them.

He also talked about the Supreme Court’s verdict on privacy in August 2017, which recognised privacy as a fundamental right, and asked what the government had done to ensure citizens’ right to privacy.

Surrogate political adverts

O’Brien also said that “surrogate” political advertisements by political parties was a misuse of citizens’ data. Citing the example of advertisements that sell alcoholic beverages under the guise of mineral water, he said that parties use third parties for free surrogate advertising to target voters.

RS Prasad’s rebuttals

Cambridge Analytica and the Data Protection Bill

Prasad rebutted O’Brien’s by talking about the management of social media by political parties. He said that as IT minister in the previous government, when the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal broke, he personally and publicly told Facebook that he would “take action” and that “we [the government] shall never allow the abuse of Indian data by foreign powers or foreign companies”. He assured the House that the government would bring in the Data Protection Bill soon, as discussions around it were still in progress. He further said that he had sent notices to Cambridge Analytica twice but didn’t hear back from them, and that the CBI is now looking into the matter.

‘Don’t insult voters’

Prasad added that the opposition shouldn’t undermine or insult Indian voters since they are smart enough to not get influenced by Facebook’s data and wise enough and understand the country’s problems. He didn’t answer O’Brien’s questions on what the government had done to ensure the right to privacy, and about surrogate advertising by political parties.