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Ashwini Vaishnaw interview | ‘New draft data protection bill to be out soon for consultation’

Draft legislation will be out for consultation soon, says Union Communications Minister

Draft legislation will be out for consultation soon, says Union Communications Minister

The draft of the revised data protection Bill will be released for consultation soon with the government planning to present it in Parliament during the Budget session next year, Minister for Telecom and IT Ashwini Vaishnaw said.

In an interview with The Hindu, the Minister stressed that the country’s data protection framework should be in tune with the modern times and not look like an attempt to “create a paper system for a digital world”.

The government, earlier this month, withdrew The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, in the Lok Sabha, reasoning that it will come up with a fresh Bill that fits into the comprehensive legal framework with reference to the suggestions made by the Joint Committee of Parliament on the Bill.

“The principles of data protection and privacy are now well established all over the world and the government is more or less already practising those principles ever since the honourable Supreme Court gave the judgment,” he said, adding that the focus now is to make sure that the implementation of the law and principles is in tune with the modern times.

“… should be accessible to everybody, should be very easy to implement and should be born digital. It should not be like we are trying to create a paper system for a digital world,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.

He added that the new draft should be out soon for consultation, and the government would bring it to Parliament in the Budget session next year.

Mr. Vaishnaw explained that the government’s policy vision for the entire digital economy had four different pieces — the new telecom Bill which is at an advanced stage of drafting, the data protection Bill and a comprehensive digital India Act that would replace the existing IT Act. “Now beyond this, there are certain policy frameworks, for example the national data framework that we have uploaded for consultation, then cybersecurity framework… these outside the law, but more like a policy framework because of the ever-changing technology landscape,” he said.

Content removal

Asked about the contentious issue of content removal from social media platforms, the Minister said the country’s law enforcement would have the final say in that. “This is there across the world. If you look at the per capita number of requests made for taking down content that is not in consonance with the laws of the country, India is among the lowest…”

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“We expect that each and every social media platform should utilise the best available technologies. They should definitely do everything that is required to protect users’ data. And it is mandated by their own policies…this is a very fair expectation. If they don’t do it, of course they would be held accountable,” he added.

BSNL revival

Replying to a query on the government’s recent ₹1.64 lakh crore revival package for the state-owned telecom services provider BSNL, Mr. Vaishnaw said with the reforms done in 2019 — wherein the government pumped in ₹70,000 crore into the PSU — the government had been able to achieve its objective of making BSNL a stable entity.

“Last financial year, BSNL made operating profit (at the EBITA level). Now, from this level, we have to make it a growing company in terms of number of subscribers, revenue and profitability,” he said.

To increase revenues and subscriber base, BSNL would be rolling out 4G networks in the coming months, and plans are to start offering 5G services by the end of 2023.

“Our focus is also on reducing the cost…laser sharp focus on reducing the cost and increasing the revenue. So, that gives a very good clear directional thrust to BSNL’s journey and we believe that BSNL will become a good market stabilising force in the coming years,” Mr. Vaishnaw said.

The PSU would also play a very important role in reaching out to the unconnected places and bridge the digital divide, he added. “There is a clear thrust by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on inclusive growth and inclusive development. The Prime Minister has also approved a project to connect about 30,000 unconnected villages, which will be done via BSNL.”

Telecom equipment export

India is building its own ecosystem for telecom equipment and aims to begin exports of telecom technology, including for 5G, to the world starting next year.

Mr. Vaishnaw added that India had received “serious definitive inquiries” as to when the technology stack being developed by The Centre for Development of Telematics (C-DoT) would be fully ready. “It is ready and tested…Once it is installed on let’s say 15,000-20,000 sites then technology is treated as proven. So we will have those credentials and by next year we will be ready to export telecom technology to the world,” he said.

The Minister also expressed the hope that the work on India’s first semiconductor fab unit could begin as early as this year. “January 1 is when we uploaded the policy…we should be able to conclude this entire process within this year itself and the first fab may get going this year.”

The world is looking for a reliable partner like India, he said.

Text of the interview

‘Working on a comprehensive legal framework for digital economy’

What is the policy road map you have envisaged for the telecom and IT sectors?

We are working on a comprehensive legal framework for the digital economy. It has four dimensions. First is telecom. Telecom is the primary medium of accessing digital services. So, a new telecom Bill to replace laws made in 1885 and 1930 is at an advanced stage of drafting. The stakeholder consultation process is about to be completed. Second will be the data protection Bill. Third is a comprehensive digital India Act that we are preparing to replace the IT Act of 2000 vintage. These are three Bills. Now beyond this, there are certain policy frameworks, for example the national data framework that we have uploaded for consultation, then cybersecurity framework… these are outside the law, but more like a policy framework because of the ever changing technology landscape.

There won’t be a separate law for cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is a constantly evolving area. Globally, it has been dealt with a techno-legal framework where technology plays a big role and policy is there to support the technology. I don’t think that by putting a law for cybersecurity the threat will vanish. It has to be a techno-legal solution. For that, we have to continuously invest in infrastructure, new processes, training people and making common citizens aware. However, we have to be always on alert to counter ever new threats.

Twitter’s ex-security chief Peiter Zatko has alleged that the company may not have the competency to protect its users and their data. Comment

That’s a very serious concern. If they have any flaws in the data protection, they will be held accountable. We expect that each and every social media platform should utilise the best available technologies. They should definitely do everything that is required to protect users’ data. And it is mandated by their own policies…this is a very fair expectation. If they don’t do it, of course they would be held accountable.

Mr. Zatko has also alleged that the Indian government forced the microblogging platform to put a government agent on its payroll and grant access to sensitive user data?

I read in the news that Twitter has categorically denied this in front of the parliamentary committee.

From a policy perspective, how is the government looking at balancing privacy with using data to offer better services? 

The principles of data protection and privacy are now well established all over the world. What is important is to create an easily implementable, highly accessible implementation structure, so that the citizens living in remote areas can also get the same level of grievance redress mechanism that citizens living in cities would get. That is what we need to really work upon — accessible, inclusive, and equitable structure. When a citizen gives data to the government based on a consent framework, and the government uses data analytics to provide better service… as long as it is part of that consent, it fits into all the principles.

Our focus now is to make sure that the implementation of these principles and data protection framework should be in tune with the modern times, should be accessible to everybody, should be very easy to implement and should be born digital. It should not be like we are trying to create a paper system for a digital world. The new draft should be out soon, and we will bring it to Parliament in the budget session.

For content removal from social media platforms, will the law enforcement of the country — and not the companies — have the final authority?

Yes. This framework is there across the world. If you look at the per capita number of requests made for taking down content that is not in consonance with the laws of the country, India is among the lowest. Our country’s laws must be followed by anybody who is working in India. It cannot be that they (social media companies) say that ‘this is my idea of what the constitution should be.’ We have consistently held that India’s laws must be implemented by every company operating in the country.

Will the equipment needed for 5G roll-out largely come from American and European firms?

It will not just be American and European. We are building a strong ecosystem in India too. In fact, by next year we will be exporting telecom technology to the world. The whole technology stack for telecom services comprises four distinct parts: core network, radio network, telecom equipment and mobile handsets. C-DOT (The Centre for Development of Telematics) and a consortium of academic institutions have developed and tested a very robust core for 4G. On 4G core they have now built a 5G core, which is almost ready. Reliance Jio has also developed their own core.

Then, we have the Radio network, which interacts between the consumer and the tower. Our PLI scheme and the start-up ecosystem has today brought out at least six radio designers and manufacturers. We are integrating all these radios in the C-DOT core. So, building that ecosystem means that we can now take our solution to the world. Similarly, in telecom equipment manufacturing, with the PLI scheme, 30 telecom equipment manufacturers have invested and started production.

The fourth part is mobile handset. Close to 25% of all the mobile handsets manufactured in India today are 5G-enabled. Manufacturers are ready to ramp the production of 5G devices up to 70-80%. Entry level 5G handset today costs about ₹15,000 and is likely to come down to ₹10,000-12,000 very soon. There are about six or seven developed countries whose telecom services providers have sent serious definitive inquiries to Indian system integrators as to when the C-DOT technology stack will be fully ready. It is ready and tested, and soon it will be rolled out across the country on 1 lakh sites. Once it is installed on let’s say 15,000-20,000 sites then technology is treated as proven. So, we will have those credentials and by next year we will be ready to export telecom technology to the world. So this is one sector where Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Atmanirbhar Bharat vision is being realised very well.

What about manufacturing semiconductors?

We are making excellent progress. Typically, these decisions take 14-18 months. January 1 this year is when we uploaded the policy. Hopefully, we should be able to conclude this entire process within this year itself and the first fab may get going this year. It could in fact be multiple fabs along with a very good design ecosystem. The world is looking for a reliable and trusted partner like India.

The Cabinet recently approved a ₹1.64 lakh-crore relief package for state-owned BSNL. This follows a similar ₹70,000-crore package announced in 2019. What gives you the confidence of a turnaround this time?

The package of 2019 has made BSNL a stable entity. Last financial year it made operating profit (at the EBITA level). Now from this level, we have to make it a growing company in terms of number of subscribers, revenue and profitability. For this, the first step we are taking is to give a very robust 4G network to BSNL. C-DOT developed technology under PM’s Atmanirbhar Bharat programme has been rigorously tested. We will roll out the 4G network in the coming months and very rapidly we’ll upgrade it to 5G. So, by the end of 2023, BSNL would have started offering 5G services which will increase the revenue potential and the number of customers. The second big thing in BSNL is the very significant increase in the number of broadband subscribers. Today BSNL is adding close to 1 lakh new fiber connections every month. These two elements are the revenue items. Third, our laser sharp focus on reducing the cost and increasing the revenue. So that gives a clear directional thrust to BSNL’s journey and we believe that BSNL will become a good market stabilising force in the coming years.

BSNL is also playing a very important role in reaching out to the unconnected places and bridging the digital divide.
For MTNL, most of the work has already shifted to BSNL. MTNL’s balance sheet is very complex, it has a huge debt on it, so we are working on it.

For the Railways, is the current growth in freight services enough to offset losses from passenger services?

The prime minister has given us a very clear mandate that the entire passenger experience has to totally transform. The first thing in this is railway stations. So today about 50 railway stations are getting totally redeveloped to world-class standards.
Second is getting a new generation of trains. The new Vande Bharat train is getting tested for 180 kmph speed and the results are excellent. Simultaneously, we are working on totally new types of engines with 9,000 HP engines. Conventionally, we have been doing 4,000 HP and 6,000 HP. The new engines are the latest technology of engines and will be designed and manufactured in India. Then for short point-to-point distances, for example, 30-40 km from a big city a totally new generation of metro trains which will run on the Indian railway tracks is being manufactured. These will replace the MEMU and DEMU trains.
So we are upgrading the entire spectrum of trains. And over the next two years, you’ll see all these things coming on to the tracks.
The third is the safety of passengers. We are scaling up installation of Kavach (indigenously developed train protection system) to 3,000 km this year as against the Budget target of 2,000 km.
On the cargo side, last year we added 185 million tonnes (MT) extra. This is phenomenal as in the past Railways added 20-30 MT. This year, we are on track to add almost a similar amount of new cargo. Over the past 70 years the Railways has been losing its market share to the road and last year we started the journey of gaining market share. This journey will continue this year. That will have a big impact on India’s logistics cost. The only way to reduce it is to have more and more rail share.
 
Our passenger subsidy is now ₹62,000 crore… nearly 55% subsidy given to everybody. So how do we fill that gap? That gap has to come from having more and more cargo.
So all these initiatives will transform passenger experience on Indian Railways.

With the improvement in amenities, is there a case for raising fares?

We are not considering raising passenger fares. Over the last eight years the Railways has consistently moved in a direction of improving passenger amenities, improving the passenger experience — from cleanliness to running trains on time to having station amenities… Simultaneously we are focusing on having more cargo. The result of eight years is now visible.

Will we be able to achieve a 96% operating ratio this year?

With the huge passenger subsidy of ₹62,000 crore and pension expenses of ₹55,000 crore and salary and wage bill of ₹ 1 lakh crore, the social obligations of railways are more important. Profit is not the motive. Within all these socio political and economic constraints we are doing everything possible to balance revenue and expenses.

 Timelines for the key dedicated freight corridors project has seen multiple extensions. What is the current status of the project?

The project started in 2007. Till 2014, the number of tracks commissioned was zero km. Since 2014, we have commissioned 1,350 km and that is a huge number. It has started operating and running about 180 trains a day. We have started getting the benefits of two freight corridors.

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