Rajeev Chandrasekhar: ‘Big Tech weaponised internet amid conflict, presiding over splinter-net’

Amid the continued “weaponisation” of the internet by some Big Tech platforms during the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict bringing back the focus on the sweeping powers of social media platforms, India is readying a new cybersecurity and data governance framework.

These actions by Big Tech companies put into perspective and call for a renewed focus on an “Atmanirbhar internet” call given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which laid focus on reducing dependency on services being provided by these global firms, Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar said.

Citing the example of some Russian banks and their subsidiaries being banned from the international SWIFT network, the minister said it was due to the focus of the government’s self-build initiatives that the country now had alternatives to these global arrangements if India ever found itself in a similar position.

“If we were depending on SWIFT alone, we are gone. But we have UPI, fintech platforms in India that have reduced our reliance on a SWIFT type of an international money transfer platform. We are seeing through our thinking of Atmanirbhar Bharat that we should not depend on Indian internet being controlled or influenced by these big tech platforms alone,” Chandrasekhar said.

Such actions by companies, countries and big tech platforms, which have taken “positions that are very partisan”, are resulting in a “splinter-net”, he added.

“Two phenomenon are very visible: one is weaponisation of the internet of which we were aware of in some sense. The second is the phenomenon of the splinter-net. The internet is increasingly being splintered, driven by power of some Western countries. These platforms have now become dominant and in the event of a conflict between two sovereigns, they are being weaponised and there are no laws that would prevent this.,” Chandrasekhar said.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on February 24, companies, countries, Big Tech platforms and intermediaries have announced a slew of sanctions which have either stopped or cut off services being provided by them to Russia and its citizens. Some of these measures include stoppage of payment services, refusal by intermediaries to operate in Russia and not allowing their citizens to post.

“It is disturbing that internet intermediaries aren’t doing enough to combat cybercrime and hacking attacks. The use of sanctions to cut off access to internet is disturbing. It is quite a troubling precedent. These recent events strengthen India’s case for data localisation, national champions, resilient internet network architecture, native open APIs (application programming interface) and a strong cyber security command centre,” Chandrasekhar told The Indian Express.

“It is validating our thinking in terms of a new digital law, the need for a data governance framework. We will basically create a framework which will have the data protection law, a digital law and other cyber security statutes. Architecturally, we want to build the cyberspace jurisprudence rather than doing it piecemeal or in catch up mode,” he added.

The actions by Big Tech companies and intermediaries also violate basic principles of net neutrality and basic idea of openness of internet as they have now become “gatekeepers”, he said.

“The platforms are now controlling the access to the internet in many ways, be it through monopolies of search engines, duopolies of app stores, or devices.”

In 2015, Chandrasekhar had written to then telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, urging him that the telecom ministry committee, which was then formed to look into the Net Neutrality issue, must take a “holistic 360 degree approach” before coming to any final conclusion on the matter.

Earlier in 2013, it was on Chandrasekhar’s public interest litigation that the Supreme Court had struck down section 66A of the Information Technology Act.

These Big Tech companies, which initially rallied on government support to become the behemoths that they are today, are now presiding over splinter-net and the balkanisation of internet by imposing sanctions on countries, he further said.

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