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IT Minister Watch: a running report of tech policy statements made by India’s IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad

Ravi Shankar Prasad has already made some key announcements around the data protection bill, intermediary guidelines, Digital Village, 5G, and social media usage after assuming the role of India’s new electronics, IT, Telecom and law minister on June 3, 2019. This running report will document key policy statements/announcements made by the cabinet minister from here on:

February 26, 2020: New IT Act in the works, says Prasad

The government is working on a new Information Technology Act (IT Act) to keep up with the changes sweeping the technology industry, according to IT and telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. The new Act will more robustly cover aspects like cyber security and data privacy, keeping in mind security of users and advent of new technologies, he said

February 6, 2020: Identification of originator of messages on WhatsApp still a problem: RS Prasad

IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the issue of fake news is a worry, and added that there are “serious parliamentary concerns” about internet being abused for child pornography, Mint reported. He added that identification of originator of messages was still a problem with regard to WhatsApp.

December 31, 2019: India gives green-light to Huawei’s participation in 5G trials

Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the ministry will not stop any equipment manufacturer from participating in India’s upcoming 5G trials, effectively green-lighting Huawei’s participation in the trials, reported news agency PTI.

December 11, 2019: RS Prasad introduces Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 in Lok Sabha

RS Prasad introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. He read out he main points of the bill:

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  • create a framework for organisations and technical measures in processing of data
  • laying down norms for social media intermediary
  • cross border transfer
  • accountability of entities
  • processing personal data
  • remedies for unauthorised and harmful processing and
  • to establish a Data Protection Authority of India

To learn more about the Bill, follow our extensive coverage of it here.

December 5, 2019: No plans to sell govt-owned non-personal data, RS Prasad informs Lok Sabha

There is presently no proposal to sell non-personal data (NPD) that belongs to various government departments, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Lok Sabha on December 4 in a written response. He also informed the lower house of the committee of experts that MeitY had formed in September to look into non-personal data, and come up with a related data governance framework.

December 5, 2019: No proposal to make internet a fundamental right, RS Prasad informs Lok Sabha

There are currently no proposals to make internet a fundamental right, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Lok Sabha on December 4, while responding to questions raised by BJP MP Harish Dwivedi. Worse, Prasad did not reveal if the government is even planning on declaring internet a fundamental right. Dwivedi had also asked Prasad about the reasons behind not making internet a fundamental right, and the time it would take for the government to make internet a fundamental right. Prasad did not address either of these questions.

December 2, 2019: Mobile internet rates lowest in India, said RS Prasad

Mobile internet rates in India “remain by far the lowest in the world,” said Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad after the country’s three major telcos — Reliance Jio, Bharti Airtel and Vodafone Idea — announced a hike in tariffs.

November 29, 2019: Prasad brings Pegasus’s flight in Parliament to a grinding halt, denies ‘unlawful interception’

“And, Sir, to the best of my knowledge, no unauthorised interception has been done,” IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad informed the Rajya Sabha on November 28, wrapping another unsatisfying chapter in the saga of “Did the Indian government purchase Israeli spyware Pegasus to spy on its citizens?”. Despite being asked by at least five different MPs during the debate, Prasad did not categorically confirm or deny whether the government purchased the spyware.

November 29, 2019: Prasad gives details of communication between MeitY and WhatsApp in Rajya Sabha

As the Pegasus-WhatsApp issue was taken up by the Rajya Sabha for discussion on November 28, the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, gave more details about the communication between MeitY and WhatsApp:

  • May 14: Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) Database in USA published a vulnerability note based on WhatsApp reporting to CVE
  • May 17: CERT-In published a vulnerability note (CIVN-2019-0080) regarding buffer overflow vulnerability in WhatsApp based on its vulnerability tracking process.
  • May 20: WhatsApp reported an incident to CERT-In, wherein it mentioned that WhatsApp identified and promptly fixed a vulnerability that could enable an attacker to insert and execute code on mobile devices and that the vulnerability can no longer be exploited to carry out attack. “As CERT-In had already issued the vulnerability note, no further action was deemed warranted,” Prasad said.
  • July 26: WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart met MeitY, no mention of the vulnerability
  • September 5: WhatsApp updated CERT-In, informing them that “it is likely that devices of approximately one hundred and twenty one users in India may have been attempted to be reached” via the May 2019 security incident. Also told CERT-In that “the full extent of this attack may never be known”.
  • September 11: Facebook VP for Global Affairs and Communications, Nick Clegg, wrongly identified as VP of WhatsApp by Prasad, met MeitY; no mention of the vulnerability (this meeting, as per media reports, took place on September 12.)
  • October 29: WhatsApp files lawsuit against NSO Group in California
  • October 31: Media reports reveal that about two dozen Indians targeted by Pegasus using WhatsApp vulnerability
  • November 1: MeitY sent an email to WhatsApp, seeking a reply by November 4
  • November 2: WhatsApp sent MeitY an email giving details of the vulnerability and its exploitation by Pegasus, developed by the NSO Group; said that they had told CERT-In about this on May 20, 2019, after it was detected and fixed in mid-May 2019
  • November 9: On the basis of media reports, CERT-In sought information from WhatsApp, including a need to conduct an audit and inspection of WhatsApp’s security systems and processes
  • November 18: WhatsApp submits its response
  • November 20: WhatsApp said that it regretted that it did not meet “the government’s expectations on proactive engagement in this sensitive issue related to user privacy and security”
  • November 26: CERT-In asks for further clarifications and technical details; sends notice to NSO Group, seeking details of the malware and its impact on Indian users

November 21, 2019: No Aadhaar-social media linkage on the cards, RS Prasad informs Parliament

The government is not considering any proposal to link Aadhaar to social media accounts of individuals, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a written response to Lok Sabha MP S. Jothimani. In September, MeitY had sought UIDAI’s opinion on linking social media accounts to Aadhaar to know what is legally possible.

November 20, 2019: BSNL-MTNL incurred Rs 9000 crore in losses in 2019-20: RS Prasad informs Lok Sabha

BSNL and MTNL have cumulatively incurred Rs 9,509 crore in losses during 2019-2020 (up to September 2019), Ministry of Communications informed Lok Sabha on November 20. Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that stiff competition in mobile segment, high employee cost and absence of 4G services were the major reasons for these losses.

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November 20, 2019: No proposals to waive telcos’ AGR dues, says RS Prasad

Te government has no proposal for waiver of penalties and interest on outstanding licence fee payments based on adjusted gross revenue (AGR), or on extending the timelines for telcos to pay up their statutory dues, RS Prasad informed Parliament. He was responding after the Supreme Court, in October 2019, ordered telecom companies to include non-core income for calculation of Adjusted Gross Revenue (AGR), and asked them to pay Rs 92,640 crore to the Centre, which includes disputed demand, interest, and penalty.

October 14, 2019: ‘Respect encryption, but law enforcement should have access,’ says Prasad

“We respect encryption but where same message is being relayed repeatedly at same time, same area and on same issue to create chaos and spread false rumours, law enforcement agencies must have access …source of nuisance must be identified to deal with circulation of false rumours in such cases,” IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said at the India Mobile Congress 2019, reported the Economic Times.

September 13, 2019: 5G spectrum auction this year or in early 2020; will be fair and transparent, says Prasad

Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that 5G spectrum auctions in India will take place by the end of 2019 or early 2020. He added, “the government has ensured that India’s auction of the spectrum will be done in a fair and transparent manner”. In June, the Department of Telecommunication (DoT) had outlined a plan to hold next spectrum sale by December 2019, however now it might get delayed till early next year.

Largest auction of airwaves: This would be the government’s largest spectrum auction, where over 8,200 MHz of airwaves at an estimated total base price of INR 5.86 lakh crore, will be up for sale, besides the sale of 4G spectrum. It is worth noting that the central government earned INR 65,789 crores from spectrum auctions of 2G, 3G, and 4G in 2016.

August 28, 2019: ‘Aadhaar and UPI have a global resonance’; ‘want India’s digital economy to be $1 trillion’: RS Prasad

IT Minister RS Prasad said that platforms like Aadhaar and UPI have a “global resonance” and politicians from Africa and the Middle East have told him that they’re “keen to adopt these systems”. He added that registration and disbursal processes in India today are being done digitally, “based on homegrown technology – whether it is for Aadhaar, Ayushman Bharat, CAC, or BPOs in the small towns”. “We want India’s digital economy to be a $1 trillion economy and this shall obviously be a part of the larger narrative of a $5 trillion economy, the minister said, before adding, “It is easily doable”.

August 23, 2019: ‘Need a balance between data availability, data privacy and data anonymity’, says Prasad

Talking about the Personal Data Protection Bill, IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said that the Bill is currently a “work in progress” and there was a need to  “balance between data availability, data privacy and data anonymity”. He also said that personal and impersonal data should be distinguished, since the latter can be used for “good”. He added that PM Modi would never compromise on India’s data sovereignty.

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A quick reminder: The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) has privately sought responses to fresh questions on the data protection bill from select stakeholders – a development we made public last week.  S Gopalakrishnan, Joint Secretary MEITY confirmed to MediaNama that there would be no public consultations, and the ministry has only sought clarifications from some people.

August 22, 2019: Prasad writes to Finance Minister Sitharaman seeking reduction in GST on telecom equipment

IT Minister RS Prasad has written to the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, urging her to reduce the GST on telecom equipment, “first to 12% and then lower, from the current 18%”, according to the Economic Times. He also wrote that the Rs 36,000 crore that’s accumulated as input tax credit due to the telecom companies be adjusted against future GST levies. Prasad noted in his letter that the adjusted gross revenue (AGR) of the telecom sector had shrunk 25% to Rs 1.39 lakh crore in FY19 from Rs 1.85 lakh crore in FY17, and these measures were essential for the viability of the sector. Prasad’s letter to the FM is more or less in tune from his June 28 announcement (see below) when he said that he was mulling relief measure for the telco sector.

July 27, 2019: Data protection law work in progress; will make it robust, says Prasad

“Our data protection law is work-in-progress, we will make a robust data protection law,” IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said at a curtain raiser event of the Indian Mobile Congress (IMC) 2019. He also said that India will never “compromise” its data sovereignty before adding that the government’s aim was to make India the world’s largest centre of data analysis. He also said that his vision was to create an Indian IP (intellectual property) and patents in 5G technology.

July 26, 2019: WhatsApp will be responsible for implementing traceability: RS Prasad

After a meeting with WhatsApp’s Global Head, Will Cathcart, in New Delhi, Prasad told the media that traceability shall be WhatsApp’s job and “there must be a mechanism whereby those can be traced to enforce appropriate law and order, and safety and security of the country”. He also said that WhatsApp must appoint a grievance officer based out of India. The current grievance office for India, Komal Lahiri, is based out of the US. Here is his complete statement:

“From my side, I have flagged 3 concerns to them: they have conveyed to me that they have set up an India specific office. I have told them that there must be an India-specific grievance officer to entertain the grievances, if it comes. And the second, on the issue of traceability, I have conveyed to them that traceability shall be their job, but in the event that the WhatsApp platform is thought to be abused by rogue, terrorist, extremist elements, by repeating some kind of re-circulation of messages, then there must be a mechanism whereby those can be traced to enforce appropriate law and order, and safety and security of the country. For this I have already given, told them very clearly that the mechanism for it will be developed by them and the request for that will also come from appropriately high level so that there’s no tinkering in between. I am very happy to note that the CEO has assured me that they will take prompt action in such matters and address them.”

July 3, 2019: Indian companies supplying US tech to Huawei may face legal action: RS Prasad

In a written reply to the Lok Sabha, Ravi Shankar Prasad told the lower House that any Indian company which is found to supply US equipment, software or technology to Huawei and its affiliates may face legal action under US regulations. He was replying to questions raised by opposition MP Santokh Singh Chaudhary on the impact of the ban on Huawei on Indian users. When asked if the government was looking to ban Huawei in the country, Prasad said that “licensed telecom service providers deploy network equipment procured from manufacturers, subject to compliance to stipulated terms and conditions of license agreement including security conditions”. He also said that “a committee under Principal Scientific Adviser (PSA) has been constituted to give recommendations on various issues, including security, relating to 5G and Technology Trials in India” when asked about the government’s plans to protect the country’s telecommunications infrastructure from possible surveillance attempts.

July 1, 2019: The govt will liberalise public Wi-Fi, explore friendly policies for startups, digitise internal processes and take broadband to masses

As part of the next step in the Digital India, the government will be looking to “digitise internal processes of the government”, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad wrote in an Indian Express column. He said that technologies like artificial intelligence and data analytics will help in monitoring government processes and performance. Apart from that, the minister also expressed the government’s action plan for the following:

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  • Data protection bill and data economy: He wrote that the government understands the “potential of data” while also acknowledging privacy concerns. He further claimed that the Data Protection Bill will “curb misuse of personal data” while addressing any privacy concerns.
  • Digital villages: He wrote that the government is planning to set up 1 lakh digital villages in the next two years. The government is also looking to “liberalise public Wi-Fi hotspots” for better internet connectivity.
  • Start-ups: Prasad wrote that the government will explore “friendly policies” so that the 7,000 tech start-ups in India could flourish.

The IT minister said that he was working on taking broadband to the masses according to an Economic Times report.

June 28, 2019: Prasad mulling relief measures for telco sector

The telecom sector will likely get some relief following the budget on July 5 RS Prasad has pitched for certain relief measures for the industry per an Economic Times report.

  • 25% reduction in license fee: This could be achieved by reducing Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF) levy (charged for taking telecom services in uncovered and rural areas) by 2% which can bring down the effective licence fee rate from 8% (5% USOF and 3% administrative charges) to 6%.
  • Immediate refund of Rs 30,000 crore blocked and delayed GST input credits could be given to telecom operators by the DoT.
  • Cutting GST rate from 18% to 12%: This, however, is a decision that will likely not be a part of the budget since it has to be decided by the GST council.

June 15, 2019: Data protection to go to Cabinet, and then to Parliament for final approval

The draft data protection bill has been finalised and will be taken to the Union Cabinet soon, after which it will get final approval from the Parliament, said IT minister RS Prasad at a Confederation of Indian Industry event, as reported by the Economic Times.

  • On movement of data: India may allow data mobility outside India only if other countries do the same. He cautioned that the data sovereignty will be non-negotiable. He said India is generating a lot of data, and while some degree of data movement is important, it will be based on reciprocity and understanding.
  • Data security: India will look into issues of data anonymity and vulnerability, while emphasizing on data security by local and foreign agencies
  • Data is going to become an important area of growth, commerce, and vulnerable area of dispute; the government aims to make India a $1 trillion digital economy in the next 4-5 years
  • Data anonymity should also be kept in focus. Anybody, Indian or international, seeking to indulge in data commerce will have to follow the rules of the game
  • Other nations are awaiting India’s data protection law as many are unhappy with Europe’s GDPR
  • On India’s level of preparedness in dealing with a US-China trade war situation: Prasad said the matter is sensitive and must be observed closely and properly. “Something good will come for India, because globally people trust India’s human resource, open society, and India as a country has great substance and sanctity”
  • On India’s priorities: He said India’s focus should now be on software production, cybersecurity, e-commerce, electronics manufacturing, start manufacturing, communication and data analytic. India should be developed as an arbitration hub, so that its dependence on other countries for arbitration reduces.

June 3, 2019: Ravi Shankar Prasad warns social media firms on platform misuse

“While we all respect freedom of speech and expression that is sacrosanct for us and part of the constitutional guarantee, but that is also subject to reasonable restriction,” Ravi Shankar Prasad warned social media firms asking them to maintain constitutional sanctity and guard against misuse of their platforms for acts of terrorism and communalism. The IT Ministry, last year, began work on tightening rules for social media and online companies, for which it held wide public consultations, especially around amendments to Intermediary Liability protections (safe harbour for platforms).

June 1, 2019: Ravi Shankar Prasad’s key priorities: Data protection bill, intermediary guidelines, Digital Villages and 5G

“In IT, we will try to quickly get the data protection bill to the Parliament and also, notifying the intermediary guidelines,” said Prasad after the announcement of the cabinet portfolios. Passing the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018, dealing with platform’ concerns about the proposed intermediary guidelines, working on new initiatives geared towards digitisation of India’s villages, and ensuring a smooth 5G rollout will be key priorities for new electronics, IT, telecom, and law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

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The personal data protection bill was expected to be taken up in the last session of Parliament, but that didn’t happen. It is now expected to be tabled in Parliament’s first session under the new government.

Prasad, who has also been given the additional charge of the telecom and law ministries, said that his top priorities for the telecom ministry would be to “nurse the industry back to health” and lay the ground for deploying 5G technology.

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