At loggerheads now, govt once used Facebook, Google for digital push

Prime Minister Modi launched 'Digital India’ in 2014 after which Facebook and Google started meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office
The Indian government may have ‘unfriended’ Facebook last week after it warned the social media giant from interfering and influencing next year’s elections. However, not so long ago, it used Mark Zuckerberg’s firm as well as Google for its magnum opus Digital India initiative.

Since the launch of the programme in 2014, these two US technology giants have played an integral role in almost every aspect of the initiative. From educating people about the internet, connecting far-flung areas with a high-speed net, promoting entrepreneurship, building start-up incubators, women empowerment, to even running a voter registration campaign, cybersecurity and counter-terrorism, Facebook and Google have done it all for the government.

How it all began?

It all started after Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the 'Digital India’ campaign in 2014 after which companies such as Facebook and Google started having meetings with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY) and Niti Aayog.

Around the time of the announcement of the Digital India initiative, Google came out with its biggest programme ‘Next Billion User’ to catch hold of the next generation of users. Facebook also started floating the idea of the internet for all ‘’.

In 2015 when the PM went to the US for the first time, he visited all the major tech firms in the valley including Facebook, Google and Microsoft, where he spoke at length about the Digital India. Facebook went a step ahead and equated the programme and, a faux pas it apologised for later.

Apart from those hiccups, Zuckerberg, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella had numerous meetings with the PM whenever they visited India on official tours. The talks were all centered around the Digital India initiative.

How deeply involved are Facebook and Google in Digital India?

According to Google, in alignment with its global efforts of getting the next billion people online — many of whom are in India — it has outlined its focus and commitment to bring the internet alive everyone in India. 

“We are very focused on solving the needs of the next billion users who’re not online. This mission aligns very well, with Indian government's vision of Digital India. A connected India with access to the whole web will help businesses grow, power education for the next generation and create growth for the Indian economy. We aim to create access to the internet with initiatives, products, features and services that are unique and relevant to India,” the company said in reply to a questionnaire.

From bringing fast, high-quality internet access, building products that perform even when there is low connectivity, making the web more accessible and useful for Indian language speakers, increasing the internet usage amongst women in rural India and skill development for developers and small and medium businesses (SMBs) to enable a safe and secure digital payments experience are some of the key initiatives Google has been working on.

On the other hand Facebook, after the failure of its campaign in India, launched Express Wi-Fi, which is now commercially available through hotspots across the four Indian states of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Meghalaya. 

In partnership with Bharti Airtel, Facebook will launch an additional 20,000 hotspots as announced in May 2017— allowing Express Wi-Fi to reach more Indians who need super-fast and affordable connectivity. 

While the Indian government is now worried about Indian users data being used by Facebook to influence elections, some time back, Facebook collaborated with the Election Commission of India (ECI) and launched a nationwide voter registration campaign. 

In 2017-18, Facebook also collaborated with the Chief Electoral Officer of Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland to increase engagement and participation in the state elections. As a part of this collaboration, Facebook promoted a reminder in people’s News Feed on the polling days to help educate people on the state elections and encourage them to take part. 

Google has been working with Indian Railways and RailTel on providing high speed Wi-Fi at 400 train stations. The company has already deployed it at over 300 stations, with monthly users of around 7.7 million. 

Its other programme ‘Internet Saathi’ launched in partnership with Tata Trusts is operational in 13 states. “Around 13.5 million women have already benefitted from the programme and it is now active across 140,000 villages,” Google said.

There are hundreds of other initiatives on which two firms have been working closely with the government under the Digital India programme.

Why did the government tie-up with these players?

According to industry experts, it was the easiest thing for the government to do — to use the resources, reach and data that these companies possess — to kickstart its own programme. 

“It is very safe to use a Google or Facebook. Why would they tie-up with small company? They have a lot of data which is updated,” said Asoke K Laha President and CEO, Interra Information Technologies, also the former National President of the Indo-American Chamber of Commerce (IACC).

Facebook and Google keep their India investment figures under wraps and it runs into billions of dollars, which includes the infrastructure and manpower they have setup in India.

Did government factor in the risk?

Experts believe that in the rush to create a Digital India, the government did not anticipate the risk that the data intermediaries pose to a nation.

“We have to understand these are all data intermediaries. It is but natural that they will use data in every manner. The government did not anticipate this, but the incident shows that India is very much at risk. The digital India programme was primarily aimed to transform India into a digital society. That is why the government in the thought process tried to rely on these intermediaries. With these kinds of incidents, it clearly shows that we are not prepared to deal with them. The IT Act is silent and India does not have a privacy law and a data protection law.  We need to revisit intermediary liability and put them in far more rigorous compliances,” said Pavan Duggal, cyber law expert and Supreme Court advocate.

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