The Big Story: Hot potato
Indian political discussions often ends up focusing on the symptoms rather than the root causes, usually because solving the major problem is too difficult or, more likely, in no one’s interest. Hence an issue like the alleged economic crimes of jeweller Nirav Modi and cricket administrator Lalit Modi have become about the surname of those two, rather than treating them as products of a problematic system. The same bump has presented itself this week, with both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress trading accusations about who worked with Cambridge Analytica, a company that assists with election work by utilising data.
It has been revealed over the last few days that Cambridge Analytica used data collected from Facebook to target millions of people during the 2016 elections in the United States in a manner that has raised serious questions about the weaponising of data and the power of social networks. Analytica illegal held on to data that it was supposed to delete. But the more worrisome fact is that it originally accessed all the data legally, at a time when Facebook was more than happy to give away information on any of its users to other developers.
Circumstances in India are different. This is a country with much lower internet penetration (although social media has exploded in the last few years, with Facebook now being familiar to millions of people around the nation). Nevertheless, its influence is not so massive that it covers a majority of the population. Moreover, there is no suggestion that Cambridge Analytica did anything in India. Yet the BJP and Congress spent Wednesday arguing about who actually worked with the company and its linked firms.
Information Technology Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad also had a message for Facebook “Mr Mark Zuckerberg, you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome the FB profile in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of FB system, it shall not be tolerated.” That seems like a stern warning, until you remember this is coming from the minister of a government that argued in the Supreme Court that there is no fundamental right to privacy, and one that is yet to put in place a law governing data protection, even though it has been collecting massive amounts of information from its citizens through Aadhaar for close to a decade now. It also came on the same day that the government’s lawyer told the Supreme Court that Aadhaar data is secure because it sits behind large physical walls.
Over time, the question will not be whether any company worked with Cambridge Analytica or if Prasad feels empowered enough to wag a finger at Facebook: it is about whether Indian regulations are genuine in protecting the data of citizens in a manner that prevents their weaponisation. This is a tough, complex conversation. Instead of trading insults about who worked with Analaytica, it would be useful if Indian political parties moved to engage with the fundamental question of data protection, one that, if it goes unanswered or even badly replied to, could spell disaster for the country.
The Big Scroll
- In age of big data, routine information can be sensitive – and Indian law doesn’t protect us enough, writes Malavika Raghavan.
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- “Is democracy increasingly becoming such a confidence trick, merely a feat of social engineering that a good combination of surveillance and data extraction can profoundly affect?” asks Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express.
- “To avoid a catastrophe, Sri Lanka needs to evolve into a strong but secular-minded state,” writes Kalana Senaratne in the Hindu. “This involves, in principal, a radical alteration of how the Sinhala Buddhist community, the state apparatus, and the community of Buddhist monks think about the majority-minority relationship and equal citizenship.”
- Suhas Palshikar adds a response to pieces by Ramachandra Guha and Harsh Mander about the “Muslim question” focusing on what the marginalisation of Muslims from political spaces means for the community and how liberals should respond. On Scroll read a response to Guha from Asghar Ali Engineer, in a piece from 2004.
Mridula Chari writes about Haryana’s plan to shield vegetable farmers from low prices, and why it might just work.
“Madhya Pradesh’s Bhavantar Bhugtan Yojana initially covered seven oilseeds and pulses, all of which have minimum support prices declared by the Centre. A minimum support price nominally covers a farmer’s cost of production. If market prices go below this level, the government is supposed to intervene and procure from the market.
Though the government declares minimum support prices for 23 crops, in practice, it procures only wheat and rice regularly, and pulses intermittently. Madhya Pradesh’s scheme was meant to cover that. It was launched in September and its first sales window closed in December. It has been criticised for its vulnerability to trader manipulation – there are suggestions that urad and soyabean traders suppressed prices artificially to buy these crops at a lower rate in the market, leaving the government to compensate farmers.
Haryana’s Bhavantar Bharpai Yojana is slightly different. Instead of crops for which there is a declared minimum support price, it has selected four vegetables – tomato, onion, potato and cauliflower – and declared their production cost, between Rs 4 and Rs 5 per kg, on its own. Unlike Madhya Pradesh, which sought to support farmers already growing certain crops, Haryana sees the scheme as a way to encourage farmers primarily engaged in growing cereals such as wheat and rice to switch to horticulture.”