5G, data protection bill, social media intermediaries: Ashwini Vaishnaw has his hands full
We take a look at the multiple policy level issues that will need the new Communications & IT Minister’s attention
BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Odisha and former civil servant Ashwini Vaishnaw has got several key portfolios in the Cabinet reshuffle that took place on July 7. Vaishnaw, who is an IIT and Wharton alumni, has got three plum portfolios of Communications, IT and Railways. His appointment comes following the surprise departure of Ravi Shankar Prasad from Communications and IT Ministry.
Joining him as his deputy will be technocrat and entrepreneur Rajeev Chandrasekhar as Minister of State in the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. Incidentally, both Vaishnaw and Chandrasekhar were part of the five-member Joint Committee on the Personal Data Protection Bill.
Being closely involved with the Personal Data Protection Bill, both Vaishnaw and Chandrasekhar will look to take the bill to its logical conclusion. Apart from the data protection bill, the issue of social media intermediaries will also keep the ministry occupied. The IT Ministry has had frequent run-ins with Twitter.
In fact, Vaishnaw issued a veiled warning to Twitter right on the first day of taking charge. In a loud and clear message to Twitter, the minister said "all those who live and work in India will have to abide by the rules of the country."
The government has notified Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules 2021 which seeks to make intermediaries like Twitter, Facebook, and Google accountable. The Part- II of these Rules dealing with social media intermediaries are administered by the Ministry of Electronics and IT.
As the Communications Minister, Vaishnaw has his hands full. He will have to take care of multiple policy level issues like 5G roll-out, satellite communications, and competitiveness of the telecom sector with Vodafone Idea coming on the brink of a collapse.
"I believe the priorities should be the personal data protection bill and the Information Technology Act amendments. I don’t think the priorities of the ministry will change substantially due to the minister change," said Trilegal Partner Nikhil Narendran.
TMT Law Practice Managing Partner Abhishek Malhotra highlighted areas of concern as far the IT Ministry is concerned. Malhotra noted that the conflict with Twitter over non-compliance with the new Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 was an issue with Ravi Shankar Prasad as well, and it continues to persist.
The review of Information Technology Act, 2000, which also include issues pertaining to data privacy and protection is another key agenda for the new minister.
Another matter that the minister will have to look at are the issues under Consumer Protection (E-Commerce Rules) and taking forward the proposed amendments. "There is requirement for appointment of a chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, resident grievance officer – much alike the IT Rules, 2021 – seemingly excessive and unnecessary. As issues could already be addressed under privacy laws, consumer laws, and respective sectoral laws (finance, healthcare, likewise)," Malhotra added.
The IT Ministry will also have to grapple with the issue of data breach concerns in IT and Telecom Sector. "Work from home has increased issues, and in the lack of any privacy legislation, there is a lot of ambiguity and constant abuse of the weak infrastructure (technical/ security measures, as well as legal framework),"
According to Malhotra, other key issues include custom duty reduction demand on telecom equipment by telecom companies in view of the launch of 5G services in the country and the digital divide issue created with due to the ongoing pandemic.
LawNK Partner Abhinav Srivastav said that the IT Ministry can be expected to push for the data protection bill as a priority. In the long run, there will be a greater support for regional languages leading to increasing digital adoption. "With their collective experience in digital and online media, the newly appointed ministers can also be expected to take a nuanced approach to the operational rules that will build-out the Indian data protection framework. The Personal Data Protection Bill is just a starting point, but I believe that their true contribution will lie in the preparation of the rules that will underpin the data protection framework."
As communications minister, Vaishnaw's priorities will be 5G roll-out, launch of satellite communication services to bridge the digital divide, besides the overall health of the telecom sector. "5G spectrum auction and the roll-out of 5G services will be one of the key agendas for the IT ministry. The role of Chinese companies in 5G roll-out is not entirely clear. Then we have the whole issue of satellite communication. We have very little participation of satellite services in our network. Satellite communications hold a lot of promise for accessing areas which are virtually impossible for terrestrial telecom people to reach. For ex, there are areas where cellular services are not easy to roll out whereas satellite communication is relatively easy. We need clarity on allocation of spectrum for satellite services," said telecom analyst Mahesh Uppal.
The survival of Vodafone Idea and the role of BSNL/MTNL in the telecom sector is also an important issue for the communications ministry. "There are concerns about the survival of Vodafone Idea in India's telecom space. The flip side is what role can government companies like BSNL play. BSNL/MTNL are also struggling. What will, or can the minister do to ensure that the telecom sector remains competitive? What can the government do to remove the gaps in access. For ex, we have a very large number of country people who still have no access to any kind of data service. Almost half the country doesn't have data access. These are all major policy concerns."
Uppal noted that the other key concern with respect to IT Ministry relates to content and the role of intermediaries apart from the data privacy bill. "How India will regulate them and to what extent and whether it can reconcile the needs of consumer protection and free speech and expression. Social media by definition is about free speech. Even social media companies want regulation in many cases. The challenge is that we have yet to evolve a suitable and effective framework. Then there is this issue of pending Data Privacy Bill. We don’t know when that will be debated and even about when the parliamentary committee will present its report."
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