India: Parliamentary IT Panel meeting likely to be stormy affair


By Meetu Jain

NEW DELHI, 14 October: From Work From Home (WFH) and internet connectivity to WhatsApp chat privacy, a meeting of Parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology next week promises to be a stormy affair, and it’s not just because legislative scrutiny will be on media standards, fake TRP ratings, fake news, and the unregulated communal, casteist and sexist content beaming on news channels.

Even before Mumbai Police’ sensational claims on fixed TRPs by media houses, the IT Committee had planned to question the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting officials on “current revenue models” of media houses and whether these are incentivizing sensationalism and compromising on accuracy.

The worry for lawmakers also is that “any effort to regulate tv news may pave the way for further surveillance/compromises on press freedoms and the dilution of journalist unions”. Already the Supreme Court has flagged the need for making public the shareholding pattern of media companies and their revenue models.

The committee also has no intention of holding fire where the WhatsApp controversy is concerned. The committee says the recent “NCB probe into actors in recent weeks has reopened concerns over traceability and intermediaries like WattsApp.” The Narcotics Control Bureau was accused of leaking confidential WattsApp chats of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, his girlfriend Rhea Chakravarty, and others.

The committee feels that there is “no clarity on what is an adequate basis to seek personal communication in an investigation, what the collateral damage for other parties will be, whether people will know their chats are being accessed and so on”. The committee seeks to find out whether “the government has a right to personal communication even when the medium does not facilitate access”. The committee feels that online personal communication is being accessed now because the medium allows for it.

The draft Intermediary Guidelines of 2018 that are pending notification, if accepted, would lead to a “complete compromise” on the privacy of communication for the whole country, a committee note says.

Led by Shashi Tharoor, opposition parties in the committee have been flagging privacy concerns, and last year the committee had to resort to voting on whether the Wattsapp issue could be discussed. This year, an attempt to evict Tharoor from the Chair failed.

It’s not just privacy concerns. Does the country have enough broadband speed to facilitate Work From Home? With more and more establishments moving towards WFH in the current pandemic situation, the committee points out that “those without access to internet services may be disproportionately affected”. The committee says that while internet connectivity and bandwidth strength in remote areas may make WFH challenging. It also feels that there are concerns over the lack of net neutrality where WFH is concerned. With children getting exposed to the internet cybersecurity protection is a concern that needs to be addressed.

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