Ravi Shankar Prasad says Cong has hired Cambridge Analytica, warns Facebook against interfering in polls
India on Wednesday warned social media platforms like Facebook of “strong action” if any attempt was made by them to influence the country’s electoral process through undesirable means.
The government also alleged that the opposition Congress had “roped in” Cambridge Analytica — a UK-based data analytics firm accused of wrongly accessing Facebook user data for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign — to run their 2019 electoral campaign.
“My question to Congress party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data,” IT and law minister Ravi Shankar told reporters in Parliament House complex. “What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in social media profile of Rahul Gandhi?”
The government’s response comes hours after Congress leader Manish Tewari’s tweet, saying the Election Commission “should enquire/recommend investigation what services & to whom they were offering in India”.
Prasad alleged that Cambridge Analytica, the agency roped in by Congress to run their 2019 campaign and termed by the party as their ‘Brahmastra’ in certain section of media, is accused of using bribes, sex workers to entrap politicians and stealing data from Facebook.
The Congress has denied the allegation.
“News about Congress engaged/engaging with Cambridge Analytica is absolutely false,” tweeted Divya Spandana, the Congress’ social media cell in-charge.
Reports had alleged that Cambridge Analytica used data mined from Facebook in the voter research it conducted for President Donald Trump during the 2016 elections campaign.
Amid probe by US privacy watchdog over the potential breach of user confidentiality by Facebook, Prasad said the government fully supports freedom of press, speech and expression and is for exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt by social media sites, including Facebook, to influence India’s electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated, he said.
“If need be, strong action will be taken,” said Prasad.
Stating that 20 crore Indians were using Facebook, making it the company’s largest market outside of the US, Prasad cautioned the social media giant and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of repercussions under IT Act in case of any data breach came to light.
“Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better know the observation of IT Minister of India, if any data theft of Indians is done with the collusion of FB systems, it will not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT Act, including summoning you in India,” he said.
Asked if the government would initiate a probe on data use by Facebook, Prasad said India had a regulator in the form of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and in case of any specific complaints, they would be taken under a structured investigation.
“We have got very robust mechanism available, we will look into it. But today, this very stern observation I gave that let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California,” he said.
This is not the first standoff between the Indian policymakers and Facebook. TRAI, in 2016, has issued regulations on discriminatory pricing over internet access that had led to ban of platforms like Facebook’s Free Basics.
“The issue concerns national interest and national security. And the BJP will take it very seriously if by collusive methods the data assets of Indians are pilfered... My caution is with regard to democratic process,” he said.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent government body charged with insuring that companies abide by their own privacy policies, is looking at whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree after media reports alleged that it had handed the data of millions of users to a political consultancy.