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IT Parliamentary Committee to discuss social media, internet shutdowns, data localisation in 2020-21

Parliament House

Reviewing the functioning of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), preventing the proliferation of misuse of social and online news media, internet shutdowns, and data localisation are some of the issues that the Shashi Tharoor-led Parliamentary Committee on Information Technology will discuss in its second year. The Lok Sabha released a bulletin on Thursday listing the subjects that the Committee had chosen.

The Committee will also discuss the steps that were taken by the IT Ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic, a clear reference to the development of the contact tracing app Aarogya Setu. It will also consider the issues faced by the telecom sector, including telecom service providers (TSPs), a potential reference to the impact of AGR dues on viability of the TSPs.

It is interesting that the committee will review the cybersecurity scenario in India since the National Cyber Security Strategy is ideally expected this month. Some agenda topics, especially those related to data security, privacy and cross-border data flows, may overlap with the remit of the Joint Parliamentary Committee that is supposed to deliberate on the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019. As it is, when the Bill was referred to the JPC in 2019, Chairperson Tharoor had called it a “brazen disregard for the Standing Committee”.

It will also discuss ethical standards in media coverage, review the functioning of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) and Doordarshan channels. Earlier this year, the IT Committee had submitted its report on amendments to the Cinematograph Bill, 2019 where it addressed issues of digital piracy and what constitutes fair use.

Committee’s Agenda for 2020-21

Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology

  1. Citizens’ data security and privacy
  2. Digital payment and online security measures for data protection
  3. Review of functioning of UIDAI
  4. Safeguarding citizens’ rights and prevention of misuse of social/online news media platforms including special emphasis on women security in the digital space
  5. Promotion of electronics/IT hardware manufacturing sector and measures for reduction of imports
  6. Policy issues in IT including cross border data flows, artificial intelligence (AI), internet of things (IoT), etc.
  7. Technology initiatives taken by MEITY in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic
  8. Review of cybersecurity scenario in India

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting

  1. Review of functioning of Prasar Bharati Organisation
  2. Ethical standards in media coverage
  3. Film Industry: Problems and Challenges
  4. Review of functioning of CBFC
  5. Review of functioning and outreach of Doordarshan channels

Ministry of Communications (Department of Telecommunications)

  1. Review of functioning of BSNL and MTNL and plan for enhancing their performance
  2. Review of functioning of TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India)
  3. Review of the performance of schemes under Universal Service Obligation Fund (USOF) with special emphasis on North East and LWE (left wing extremism) affected areas
  4. India’s preparedness for 5G
  5. Suspension of telecom services/internet and its impact
  6. Issues confronting telecom sector including telecom service providers (TSPs)
  7. Review of functioning of Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DOT)
  8. Inter-sectoral review of challenges of emerging and converging technologies, entities and practices

Ministry of Communications (Department of Posts)

  1. Real estate management in the Department of POsts
  2. Department of Posts: Initiatives and Challenges

Discussion on some issues to continue

Some of the issues, such as impact of internet shutdowns, India’s preparedness for 5G, dealing with misuse of social and online news media, were discussed by the Committee in the first year. In its last meeting on September 2, it had summoned Facebook’s India head Ajit Mohan after revelations from the Wall Street Journal that the platform had not taken down content by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling party, despite it violating the company policies. Some details of that deposition were published by News18, here.

The Committee had also taken up the issue of internet shutdowns, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, where 4G internet was restored in only two districts after more than a year of being cut off. In the same meeting, the members had questioned the Department of Telecommunications over India’s 5G preparedness.

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In another meeting, the committee had discussed the ban on Chinese-owned apps. When the meeting took place in July, only 59 apps had been banned. Since then another 166 apps have been banned due to national security reasons. The banned apps also include PUBG, a ban which was proposed during the July meeting as well, albeit for its effect on the youth. In this meeting, the members had questioned MEITY officials over data security of the Aarogya Setu app.

In 2019, the committee had also discussed how Pegasus spyware was installed in a number of Indians’ phones to surveill them and the cyber attack on the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant.

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