New Delhi, Mar 21: India today warned social media giant Facebook of "stringent" action for any attempt to influence polls by allowing data theft and even threatened to summon its CEO Mark Zuckerberg if needed. The warning came as the BJP today launched a scathing attack on the Congress, questioning the party on its relation with Cambridge Analytica, a data mining firm accused of harvesting personal user data from Facebook illegally to influence polls in several countries.
Citing media reports of Congress' links to the firm, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad asked whether the opposition party will depend on data manipulation and theft to woo voters. Prasad's charge is that the Congress planned to use the firm's services for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections and boost its president Rahul Gandhi's profile.
Amid the ongoing probe by US privacy watchdog and British lawmakers over a potential breach of user confidentiality by Facebook, Prasad said the Indian government fully supports freedom of press, speech and expression and is all for free exchange of ideas on social media. However, any attempt by social media sites, including Facebook, to influence India's electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated, he told reporters in Parliament House complex. "...let me make it very, very clear, we fully support freedom of press, speech and expression; we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India's electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated," Prasad warned.
"If need be, stringent action will be taken," he added. When contacted for comments, a Facebook spokesperson told PTI in an e-mailed response that the minister has "raised several important questions" but stressed that the company is committed to its policies of protecting users' information. "We appreciate his attention to this matter and we will continue to engage with the government on this matter. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect peoples' information and will take whatever steps are required that this happens," the Facebook spokesperson added.
Prasad said that 20 crore Indians are using Facebook, making it the company's largest market outside of the US. The minister also cautioned the social media giant and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of repercussions under the IT Act in case of any data breach came to light. "Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome Facebook in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of Facebook system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India," Prasad warned. Asked if the government would initiate a probe on data usage by Facebook, Prasad said India has a regulator in the form of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and in case of any specific complaints, the same would be taken up under a structured investigation. "We have got very robust mechanism available, we will look into it. But today, this very stern observation I gave that let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California," he said. The minister added that India is strengthening its data protection laws and the Justice B N Srikrishna committee, tasked to suggest a robust data protection framework, has already done multiple rounds of consultation. Incidentally, this is not the first standoff between Indian policymakers and Facebook. TRAI, in 2016, had issued regulations on discriminatory pricing over internet access that had led to ban of platforms like Facebook's Free Basics. "The issue concerns national interest and national security. And the BJP will take it very seriously if by collusive methods the data assets of Indians are pilfered... My caution is with regard to democratic process," Prasad said.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent government body charged with ensuring that companies abide by their own privacy policies, is looking at whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree after media reports alleged that it had handed the data of millions of users to a political consultancy.
Reports have also alleged that Cambridge Analytica used data mined from Facebook in the voter research it conducted for US President Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign. The matter is also being investigated by UK authorities.
Prasad today alleged that Congress party had links with Cambridge Analytica. "My question to Congress party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data," he said. "What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in social media profile of Rahul Gandhi?" Quoting reports, Prasad said Cambridge Analytica is accused of using bribes and sex workers to entrap politicians and stealing data from Facebook. Prasad sought to know from the Congress party as to how much data trade it had with Cambridge Analytica in view of the recent Gujarat and North East elections, and the upcoming elections in Karnataka.