Monsoon Session 2021: A Digital Rights Review

The Monsoon session of Parliament saw frequent disruptions of big issues such as the Pegasus attacks and the farm reforms. In this post, we take a look at these disruptions, and analyse how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights. Unfortunately there was not much progress.

18 August, 2021
6 min read

Tl;dr

The Monsoon session of Parliament saw frequent disruptions of big issues such as the Pegasus attacks and the farm reforms. In this post, we take a look at these disruptions, and analyse how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights. Unfortunately, from pending legislations to statutory motions of digital governance frameworks to a discussion on the Pegasus attacks, there was not much progress.

A look back

The monsoon session of the Indian Parliament this year was quite extraordinary. The first few days of the session were washed out, as the protests about the lack of discussion of key issues such as the Pegasus revelations and the farm reforms led to multiple adjournments. The government responded to these protests by claiming that in the first 2 weeks of session approximately Rs. 133 crore was lost due to disruptions. Subsequently, while these protests continued, legislative deliberation did resume. However, the government faced substantial criticism over this as well, as the first 10 days of the monsoon session saw 12 Bills, including several important Bills such as The Essential Defence Services Bill, 2021, being passed in 10 days with an average of 7 minutes of discussion per Bill! Further disruptions continued, with a huge ruckus breaking out in the Rajya Sabha on August 11th, leading to the house being adjourned sin die 2 days of schedule.

Data compiled by PRS Legislative Research shows that Parliament functioned for less than a quarter of the scheduled time. During the course of the session, the average time spent discussing a Bill before passing it was 34 minutes for the Lok Sabha and 46 minutes for the Rajya Sabha. These figures themselves are inflated by an outlier, as The Constitution (One Hundred and Twenty-seventh Amendment) Bill, 2021 was discussed for 474 minutes by the Lok Sabha and 360 minutes by the Rajya Sabha. Additionally, the averages for the session must be compared to the overall averages for the current Parliament, which are 2 hours 23 minutes for the Lok Sabha and 2 hours for the Rajya Sabha.

The COVID-19 pandemic had already reduced parliamentary functioning, and so these are worrying developments. However, the cause for these disruptions must also be examined, which is what we will do in this blogpost by looking at how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights.

Pending Bills and Legislations

Last month, when we released our Legislative Brief on Digital Rights, we had looked at a couple of key issues and pieces of legislation that might have been taken up by Parliament. So how did the Parliament perform? Not too well, unfortunately. We had identified 3 pieces of legislation that would be up for debate, and none of them saw any significant progress.

  1. The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019: The report of the Joint Parliamentary Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, which is posited as India’s overarching legislation governing data protection practices, was slated to be released during the current session of the Parliament. Previously, we have identified possible ways forwards for the Bill, hoping that the report of the JPC would be released during the Session. However, on July 22, 2021, the Committee received its fifth extension (!) to submit its report, and has now been given time till the first week of the Winter Session, which will likely begin during the last week of November later this year.
  2. The DNA Technology (Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019: One of the most crucial issues to be taken up by the Parliament during the Monsoon Session is the DNA Technology ( Use and Application) Regulation Bill, 2019. Centred around the use of DNA technology in the justice delivery system, this bill raises concerns about privacy and surveillance norms. However, no significant discussion, either on the Bill or the report of the Standing Committee, took place, and so the Bill is still pending.
  3. The Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019:  The Cinematograph (Amendment) Bill, 2019 is scheduled to be tabled in the ongoing session of the Parliament. This Bill revolves around proposed amendments like subcategories of certification for films, stringent penal provisions for the menace of privacy as well as the changes to the power of the Central Board of Film Certification. This Bill too did not witness any significant discussion, and is pending.

Back and forth over the IT Rules, 2021

Going into session, one of the most pressing issues with regards to digital governance were the new Information Technology (Intermediary Liability and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021. They have been notified and tabled in the Rajya Sabha on 25th March this year, and were expected to be tabled in the Lok Sabha over the course of the current session of the Parliament. The Rules have been mired in controversy ever since they were notified. In their current form, they not only lack any clear rationale but also go beyond the scope of the parent statute rendering them unconstitutional. Further, they suffer from imprecise language, impose arbitrary obligations of content regulation, traceability and decryption upon intermediaries which in turn jeopardise the freedom of speech and expression as well as the Right to Privacy of the users.

On 22nd July, Rajya Sabha MP Binoy Viswam submitted a statutory motion to annul the Rules. However, the Business Advisory Committee, which decides whether motions will be debated, did not seem to have allocated any time to the Rules, and so the motion lapsed. Additionally, on 27th July, Lok Sabha MP MV Shreyams Kumar also moved a statutory motion to annul the Rules. Mr. Viswam also said that the Rules were “worse than Emergency era censorship”, and that they were “anti-constitutional”. It is unfortunate that the government did not use these opportunities to conduct much needed debate on the Rules, given the pressing concerns that have been raised about them.

The Pegasus Scandal

The biggest issue was of course the Pegasus hacking revelations, in which it was revealed that the Israeli spyware firm NSO targeted “over 300 verified Indian mobile telephone numbers, including those used by ministers, opposition leaders, journalists, the legal community, businessmen, government officials, scientists, rights activists and others” through their spyware, Pegasus. This is a huge blow to the  rights of privacy and freedom of speech & expression of the citizens in addition to raising doubts about the surveillance practices of the government. Ideally, the Parliament should have probed this incident and formulated adequate steps to prevent any such attacks in the future. So what happened?

In one word: chaos. On July 19, 2021, the Minister of Electronics and Information Technology, Ashwini Vaishnaw, presented his statement in response to the Pegasus Project revelations in the Lok Sabha, which was also presented in Rajya Sabha. The statement was rife with obfuscations and factual inaccuracies, leading to pandemonium in the Lok Sabha - MP Shantanu Sen even snatched the papers from the minister’s hands and tore them up.

The Standing Committee on Information and Technology had summoned a sitting to discuss this specific issue on July 28, 2021. However, this sitting too witnessed high drama, as the members of the Committee who belonged to the BJP refused to sign the attendance register, thereby resulting in a lack of quorum, while the the officials of Ministry of Home Affairs, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, and the Department of Telecommunications skipped the sitting, saying they were busy due to other meetings in Parliament.

In response to all these developments, the government said that Pegasus was a non-issue, as the Opposition continued to demand a comprehensive debate on the revelations. Thus, while the government may go ahead and blame the Opposition for parliamentary dysfunction, the fact of the matter is that, given the seriousness of the allegations, an informed debate on the issue should have been conducted - a simple statement by a minister does not and cannot be a substitute for this. The government’s reluctance to discuss the Pegasus issue can also be gauged from the fact that a question raised by MP Binoy Viswam about the government’s dealings with the NSO Group was disallowed, saying that the Rules and Procedure and Conduct of the Rajya Sabha prohibit questions about matters that are subjudice. This is, in fact, a cop out, as the Speaker can decide to discuss a matter of great public importance even if it is subjudice.

What’s next

Important discussions and legislation have been shifted forward to the Winter session. This includes the report of the JPC on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. It is high time these  issues of digital rights are given the time they need and discussed on the floor of the house. Additionally, this is the fourth successive session that has been cut short. Thus, at a time when Parliament should be working with increased efficiency and discussing all urgent matters, it has not been able to do so. Moving forward, we hope the government will allocate time to take up such matters in both houses of Parliament.

Important Documents

  1. IFF’s Legislative Brief on Digital Rights for Monsoon Session 2021 (link)

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