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Parliament Watch: Confusing, indirect answers from govt during Week 2

Credit: Aditi Agrawal

When the government doesn’t want to tell you something, it won’t, even if it is the Parliament that’s asking. Over the second week of the Parliament’s Monsoon Session, MPs asked the government for data on various subjects  — on the effect of internet shutdowns in Jammu & Kashmir, number of blocked websites, effect of pandemic on startups and so on. 

But, the government either didn’t have the required data, or it submitted confusing answers that raised more questions than they answered. 

Meanwhile, Tejasvi Surya, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP from Karnataka, called for a radical change that could potentially shake up the entire internet ecosystem in India. He demanded that the safe harbour protections afforded to internet intermediaries like Facebook and Twitter be repealed. He suggested that social media platforms were censoring speech, especially of those with a “nationalist” bent. 

Lastly, the premature adjournment of the Session — which was cut short by eight days — meant many questions by MPs were left unanswered. The questions that were supposed to be answered during these eight days were already available on Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha’s websites. However, once both houses were adjourned, the questions were promptly removed from both websites. 

Error 404: Data not found

The government has no data on how the year-long internet blockade affected the union territory of Jammu & Kashmir. N Uttam Kumar Reddy, a Congress MP from Telangana, asked the Home Ministry if the internet blockade — which has existed  in J&K in one way or another since August 2019 — has affected citizens’ access to healthcare and education. 

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Minister of State  at the Home Ministry G Kishan Reddy, also a Telangana MP, had no concrete figures to supply. He just claimed the businesses continued to have access to the internet through fixed line connections and internet kiosks. He also said 2G internet speeds were quite enough for Covid-19 control measures. 

Contrary to the minister’s submission, however, people of the region have indeed faced significant issues. Many Kashmiri businesses face bankruptcy due to their inability to access e-commerce websites at existing internet speeds. 

Read: Internet shutdown in J&K had no impact on COVID-19 measures, education, businesses: Home Ministry

The government also has no idea about the contribution of start-ups to the GDP. Also, the Department of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT) told NCP MP Vandana Chavan that it does not maintain data on the number of startups affected by Covid-19. 

Read: DPIIT has ‘no data’ on start-ups’ contribution to GDP, effect of COVID-19 on start-ups

The government had a similarly indirect answer about the digitisation of land records in the country. When asked for a definitive answer on whether the programme had achieved even 50% of its goals, the Ministry of Rural Development said digitising land is a “complex, sensitive and voluminous work, involving cumbersome and time consuming processes”. 

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Read: Digitising land records is “complex, sensitive and voluminous work”: government in Parliament

MEITY’s baffling data on blocked websites 

BJP MP C.M. Ramesh asked the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) about the number of websites it has blocked in the recent past. The ministry told him it has blocked 6,454 websites in 2018 and 2019. Seems like a straight enough and simple answer, doesn’t it? Well, not really. 

We realised that the ministry’s number for the websites blocked in 2019 (3,655) is different from what it had revealed in March 2020 (3,635). Granted, the numbers don’t differ by much. However, what should concern you is that MEITY had submitted confusing numbers in the past as well. Perhaps, MEITY would want to get its accounting sorted for next time. 

Read: Govt says it blocked 6,454 websites in 2018-19, but numbers don’t add up  

‘Chill! We’re not using WhatsApp to spy on you’

MEITY told Congress MP DK Suresh that the government and its agencies don’t have access to data and voice messages sent on WhatsApp. This is the first time the ministry has answered this question directly, without any obfuscation. 

However, there are still some unanswered questions. It has been established that over a hundred WhatsApp users in India, many of them human rights activists, were targeted by Pegasus, a snooping tool developed by Israel-based NSO Group. MEITY had acknowledged this in September, 2019. But NSO Group maintains that it only sells Pegasus to verified governments and law enforcement agencies. 

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So who exactly is using Pegasus to target Indian users? 

Read: ‘Govt has no access to WhatsApp data, voice messages,’ MEITY says in Lok Sabha

Related — on ground report on impact of the internet shutdown : Kashmiri businesses teetering on bankruptcy, as year-long Internet shutdown chokes e-commerce

End safe harbour protections, says Tejasvi Surya

BJP MP Tejasvi Surya, speaking in the Lok Sabha during Question Hour, declared that the intermediaries such as Facebook and Twitter shouldn’t be allowed to remove any content from their users. As internet intermediaries, they should only store and transmit data, not intervene in users’ content. 

Surya said the Intermediary Guidelines were unconstitutional, and called for the government to repeal safe harbour protections guaranteed to internet intermediaries in the country. 

The Bangalore South MP has been a member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Information Technology since September, 2019. 

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Read: BJP’s Tejasvi Surya urges govt to repeal intermediary liability protections

JPC report on data protection bill delayed

The Joint Parliamentary Committee report on the Personal Data Protection Bill, which was set to be tabled this week, has been delayed to the winter session of Parliament. The committee was unable to meet due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Virtual meetings too weren’t allowed owing to concerns around preserving Parliamentary privilege. 

Read: Parliamentary committee’s report on Data Protection Bill now due in Winter Session

Code on Social Security passed in both houses

The Code on Social Security, 2020 was passed by both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha during the week, recognising, for for the first time, the gig economy in an Indian law. The Code proposes social security benefits for gig workers and platform workers, things they were denied because of their peculiar existence as “contractors”. 

Aggregators such as Swiggy, Uber, Zomato and other gig economy companies will have to pitch in for social security schemes of people working with (for) them. 

Read: Code on Social Security, 2020, lays down gig and platform worker benefits

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Cybercrimes double in number during pandemic

MEITY submitted that the number of cybersecurity incidents reported to CERT-In between the first and second quarters of 2020 more than doubled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, there were more incidents in July and August than there have been in the six preceding months of 2020. 

Read: Exponential growth in number of cyber incidents reported to CERT-In during pandemic: MEITY

Direct overseas of Indian companies listing to be allowed soon

The Companies (Amendment) Bill, 2020 was passed in both houses of the Parliament this week. The bill will allow Indian companies to list in foreign stock exchanges without having to do so in India first. Indian startups could soon be able to tap into lucrative capital markets in other parts of the world. 

All that is left is for the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to release its guidelines for the companies. 

Read: Bill allowing direct overseas listing by Indian companies passed in Lok Sabha

Seven Chinese mobile firms have failed Indian standards

As many as seven mobile companies, and 123 electronic and IT goods, from China have failed to comply with Indian safety and quality norms since February 2015. At the same time, MEITY told BJP MPs Rodmal Nagar and Keshari Devi Patel, who asked the question, that the Bureau of Indian Standards has granted registrations to over 13,000 Chinese products since its inception . 

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Read: Since Feb’15, 7 mobile firms, 123 electronic goods from China have failed Indian standards: MEITY

Over 40,000 fraudulent Aadhaar cancelled so far

As many as 40,955 fraudulent Aadhaar numbers were discovered and cancelled as of August, 2020. This is the first time MEITY or UIDAI have given a straight answer on fraudulent Aadhaars. In 2017, UIDAI had blocked an RTI asking for these details citing “national security” reasons. 

The revelation raises questions around security of the Aadhaar ecosystem. 

Read: Over 40,000 fraudulent Aadhaar numbers cancelled as of Aug 2020: MEITY

More than seven crore animals have Aadhaar

Even as the government discovered all those fraudulent Aadhaar numbers, it issued Pashu Aadhaar (Aadhaar for animals) to more than seven crore cows, buffaloes, pigs, goats and sheep, the Animal Husbandry Ministry revealed. The Ministry indicated that Pashu Aadhaar cards will double up as the animal health card, or Nakul Swasthya Patra for the animals. Is this what will happen to humans under the National Digital Health Mission (NHDM)? 

Read: 71.6 million animals given Pashu Aadhaar; tag to double as health card

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