China, China and more China. Our north-eastern neighbour was on the minds of everyone in Parliament this week. Discussions on technological matters were dominated by China: app bans, Chinese surveillance, concerns about Huawei and ZTE and so on.
In all that hullaballoo, one member — Congress’s leader in the Lok Sabha, Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury — even called for India to have its own internet firewall as protection against China!
Meanwhile, the government made some interesting, albeit confusing moves, with regard to the regulation of streaming services. For all we know, we could very well be barrelling towards a censorship regime for OTT platforms in the near future. Also, in an explosive revelation, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar is reported to have personally intervened to get a web series censored.
The ongoing Monsoon session of the Parliament is the first one since the Covid-19 pandemic hit India. Here is a summary of all that was, and wasn’t, in the Parliament during September 14-19:
App bans: What’s the government thinking?
A little background: Over the past few months, India and China have been involved in a standoff on their border in Ladakh. This has led to the intensification of a general sense of suspicion towards Chinese tech. Subsequently, over three batches, the Indian government has banned 224 Chinese-owned apps, including extremely popular TikTok, PUBG, ShareIt, Camscanner, Shein, Clash of Kings and WeChat citing “national security”.
A number of MPs asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) for more details about the app bans. However, the ministry fell short of mentioning “China” in the answers. Key highlights:
- There is no plan to ban all apps linked to China, the ministry told Congress’ Anto Antony. This means India wouldn’t be banning all apps or software willy-nilly just because of their links to China. Of course, there is still no clarity on what criteria the 224 apps banned so far were chosen for the action.
- The ministry doesn’t want to say if these apps stole user data. BJP MP Rakesh Singh asked MEITY if these apps stole data of their Indian users and sent it out of the country. IT Minister of State Sanjay Dhotre simply quoted provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000 that allowed for the apps to be blocked. By choosing to not answer Singh’s question, MEITY has essentially sidestepped addressing the key accusation against Chinese companies, that they were guilty of data-theft, the confirmation of which would have legitimised the act of blocking them.
- MEITY has no information on number of jobs lost or financial cost of banning the 224 apps.
- There is — at least currently — no plan to ban Zoom, the video-conferencing app.
The Great Indian Firewall?
Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, leader of the Congress in the Lok Sabha, sprung a surprise by calling for an internet firewall to counter China’s “digital aggression”. Chowdhury’s suggestion, which looks disturbing similar to the Great Chinese Firewall, came after media reports this week about a Chinese company Zhenhua Data, which had created profiles of 10,000 Indian citizens, including the prime minister and the president. The reports had largely exaggerated the “surveillance” aspect — Zhenhua Data was collecting information already in the public domain. Read our story for more context.
Chowdhury said an “impregnable firewall” would counter China which was surveilling “everyone from king to public” in India. A second Congress MP, Kodikunnil Suresh chimed in, noting that the Chinese aggression in multiple factors, including cyber espionage, assumes significance as India is engaged in a stand-off with the country in Ladakh.
In a subsequent editorial, Nikhil Pahwa, founder and editor of MediaNama noted a firewall is not a great idea. He argued that that the Great Chinese Firewall is not as much a tool to protect Chinese citizens from cyberattacks or surveillance, as it a virtual prison. China’s firewall is essentially a tool of surveillance, which helps guide its infamous censorship regime.
- Editorial: An Internet Firewall for India would be unconstitutional and totalitarian
- Build ‘an impregnable firewall’ to counter Chinese digital aggression: Cong MP in Lok Sabha
Huawei, 5G trials and BSNL
More than half of telecom equipment used by state-run BSNL was procured from Huawei and ZTE, the controversial Chinese companies that are under international scrutiny for their alleged links to Chinese intelligence agencies.
- MEITY told the Parliament that 44.4% of BSNL’s equipment was procured from Huawei, and 10% from ZTE. Additionally, 10% of equipment used by MTNL, another state-owned telco, comes from Chinese manufacturers, although it is unclear if they include Huawei and ZTE.
- Why is this important? Both Huawei and ZTE have been under the scanner in India due to ongoing Indo-China tensions. Although both companies were allowed to participate in 5G trials, in August, the Department of Telecommunications said it would discuss the decision with the Ministry of Home Affairs.
- However, the government seems to have a confusing stance on this matter. On Wednesday, MEITY told in another answer that the government has no plans to exclude Chinese companies from 5G infrastructure contracts.
- More than half of BSNL equipment acquired from Huawei, ZTE
- DoT committee recommends that BSNL 4G core be Indian, with source code audits: Report
Regulation of OTT, digital media on the cards?
The government made some interesting moves around regulating streaming services like Hotstar, Netflix and Prime Video. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting had earlier indicated that it was interested in a self-regulation mode, wherein streaming industries would police their own content. It had even given the industry time to come up with a code. The Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) eventually compiled a code, and released it on September 4.
However, the government seems to be distancing itself from this code. When it was asked about the regulation of streaming services, it sidestepped it by simply saying that content over the internet is governed by the Information Technology Act, 2000. The I&B ministry’s silence could mean it doesn’t support the code just yet.
Javadekar intervened to censor a web series, says BJP MP
Meanwhile, it was revealed that the I&B ministry could be using its authority to actively censor OTT platforms. BJP MP Dr Vikas Mahatme told the Parliament that I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar had personally intervened to get an ALT Balaji/Zee 5 show censored. The show had purportedly defamed Ahilyabai Holkar, an 18th century Maratha ruler. This is perhaps the first report of a Union minister actively intervening in getting a web series censored.
Facebook bias issue comes up
Opposition MPs called out Facebook for its alleged political bias in India on the floor of the Rajya Sabha. They were speaking in context of recent media reports, which claimed the social media giant had refused to take action against ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders posting hate-speech on Facebook, fearing that such action would affect its business prospects in India.
Congress’ KC Venugopal said the report(s) was “damning and serious allegation of Facebook’s interference in India’s electoral democracy”. Another Congress MP Amee Yajnik called for a comprehensive legal framework to monitor social media platforms.
Bill for social security of gig-workers introduced
The Code on Social Security, 2020 — which will force gig-economy companies like Uber and Swiggy to contribute to a social security benefits to their “workers” — was introduced in the Lok Sabha on Saturday.
Gig workers are treated as independent contractors by companies such as Swiggy, Zomato, Uber and Ola. Currently, they are not covered under any legislation and are ineligible for social security benefits.
BHIM app not breached
MEITY has denied reports of the BHIM app being breached. Earlier in June, VpnMentor had claimed that over 7 million records of BHIM UPI app users had been compromised, including scans of Aadhaar cards, caste certificates, proofs of residence and PAN cards. IT Minister of State Sanjay Dhotre denied this claim.
Telemedicine platform gets Sanjeevani booti
The Indian government’s telemedicine platform eSanjeevani, which has gained significance during the ongoing pandemic, has been allotted over Rs 100 crore in the current financial year. Three states — Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Haryana — account of half of this allotment. Launched in November 2019, eSanjeevani is being scaled up and has completed 300,000 consults in early September.
Digital Health Mission to not wait for data protection law
The Health ministry will not delay the implementation of the Digital Health Mission or the Health Data Management Policy for a personal data protection law. To a question asked by BJP MP Tejasvi Surya, the ministry said privacy and security measures proposed in the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 have already been adopted in the ecosystem. The PDP Bill is currently being deliberated by the Joint Parliamentary Committee, the proceedings of which have been delayed by the pandemic.
Meanwhile, it was revealed that the National Health Authority (NHA) has asked for a budget of Rs 30 crore to implement the Digital Health Mission in six union territories.
Digital learning assumes importance because of pandemic
Members of many parties, including the BJP, YSR Congress Party, Trinamool Congress and the Revolutionary Socialist Party asked the government what it had done — and what it had planned — for improving digital learning in the country.
There was no concrete answer about what the Education ministry is doing to help students get access to electronic devices. It sidestepped the question, and simply referred to a report (India Report Digital Education) that listed out everything it had done in the field of online learning.
***Correction (September 25, 5:30 PM): Lok Sabha MP Tejasvi Surya’s name was misspelled in the original story as “Tejaswi Surya”. It has been corrected. The error is regretted. Originally published on September 20.