After the recent reconstitution of the Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology (“the Standing Committee”), Shri Prataprao Jadhav has been appointed as the chairperson of the Committee. We have written to the Hon’ble Chairperson highlighting some issues that require the Standing Committee’s urgent attention.
Why should you care?
The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology has been mandated with the onerous and intricate task of oversight over three key Ministries - The Ministry of Communications, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. Apart from the Bills introduced in either of the Houses as referred to it by the Speaker, Lok Sabha or the Chairman, Rajya Sabha, the Standing Committee may also select other subjects for examination. The Standing Committee is an important forum to raise, discuss and make recommendations on pertinent issues to the concerned Ministries.
As India stands at the cusp of a digital revolution and aims to become a leading digital economy, multiple issues plague the digital ecosystem and cyberspace. Given the absence of a data protection law or any cybersecurity legislation, the role of the Standing Committee in making important interventions is even more important. Reconstitution of the committee is a chance for the Standing Committee to take up new subjects. Previously also, we have written to the Standing Committee on several occasions raising issues and as part of a brief before Standing Committee sittings.
In our letter, we have highlighted five issues for the standing committee’s consideration:
A. Ministry of Communications:
1. Continued need to ensure net neutrality in cyberspace:
The regulation and enforcement of net neutrality is in dire need of improvement. Today we see that website blocking by several Internet Service Providers is inconsistent and arbitrary. Despite efforts to usher in transparency and have statutory safeguards, the challenge is further compounded by the lack of implementation of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India’s (TRAI’s) recommendations regarding ‘Traffic Management Practices and Multistakeholder Body for Net Neutrality’. Thus, addressing net neutrality issues and operationalising the TRAI's recommendations is important.
2. Investigate Media Ownership:
Media ownership and concentration have been again brought to the forefront with TRAI’s consultation paper on Issues relating to Media Ownership. With the increase in the presence and influence of digital media, the viewership preference of the audience has also changed, resulting in higher consumption of digital media. Therefore, there is a need to study the impact of media ownership concentration across horizontal and vertical integration.
The Standing Committee must accordingly take up the subject of media ownership and study the contours which need regulation.
3. Review of performance of Digital Address Code - Department of Post
In October 2021, the Department of Posts, under the Ministry of Communications, released the “Draft Approach Paper for creating a Digital Address Code (DAC)”, which laid out the DAC as being unique to each address, which would be linked to geospatial coordinates of the building or establishment, and which would be usable by all stakeholders to be captured in a QR code or mapped digitally.
In the public consultation, several civil society organisations, including IFF, highlighted the governance issues around geospatial data, data protection issues around the use of geospatial data, and potential surveillance and function creep challenges which will arise from DAC.
However, there has been no public announcement from the department about the proposal. We have highlighted the issue in our letter and suggested that the Standing Committee may take up the issue after studying the DAC's need, usefulness and impact.
B. Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology:
4. The proliferation of ed-tech companies putting student data at risk:
The commercialisation of students’ personal information can be attributed to the exponential growth of ed-tech and remote education amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although the Indian Supreme Court in K.S. Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2019) 1 SCC 1 upheld the right to privacy to all citizens, the Government of India has also ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Given the harms related to behavioural analytics, data security and students’ privacy from learning applications, we have written to the Standing Committee that they may take up this issue and make recommendations to educate, inform and increase awareness of end-users of the risks and challenges associated with app-based learning.
5. Presence of surveillance-for-hire industry in India:
Several reports, such as “Threat Report on the Surveillance-for-Hire Industry” by Meta in December 2021 and “Dark Basin - Uncovering a Massive Hack-For-Hire Operation” by Reuters and CitizenLab in June 2020, point towards a surveillance-for-hire industry in India. The highly sophisticated and invasive tools available to such groups are often put to unethical and potentially illegal ends. Therefore, the Standing Committee may take up this subject and, after investigation, make recommendations to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to frame guidelines and curb the industry.
Apart from the above issues, which beseech the Standing Committee’s scrutiny, we have also mentioned some pertinent issues it has taken up over the past year and must remain at the forefront for continuous inspection. These include:
A. Ministry of Communications
1. Review of the performance of schemes under the Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) with special emphasis on North East and LWE-affected areas.
The Universal Service Obligation Fund continues to be a key tool in providing quality and affordable mobile and digital services across the rural and remote areas of the country. Therefore, the Standing Committee must review the performance of USOF and expand the grounds to review its performance in other remote areas such as Andaman and Nicobar Islands and other backward states across the country.
2. Suspension of Telecom Services/Internet and its impact.
India continues to be the country with the most internet shutdowns. In the absence of enforceable guidelines, local officers continue to keep internet access on a hair trigger. Therefore, the Standing Committee must continue studying the impact of the suspension of telecom services and the actions taken in its previous report.
B. Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology
1. Safeguarding citizens’ rights and preventing misuse of social/online news media platforms, including special emphasis on women's security in the digital space.
We urge the Committee to continue investigating the misuse of social/ online news media platforms with special emphasis on women's security. We also expand the scope to include all gender minorities to ensure constitutionally guaranteed rights in digital space for all. Previously, we have written to the Standing Committee requesting an inquiry into the revelations made by Ms. Sophie Zhang vide letter dated June 16, 2022, with reference number IFF/2022/066; inquiry to investigate the “Bulli Bai” & “Sulli Deals” vide letter dated January 14, 2022, with reference number IFF/2022/003.
- Inputs for subjects that the Standing Committee on Communications and Information Technology may consider. (link)