For large nation like India, deepfakes a problematic issue for conducting safe, fair polls: MoS IT

Union Minister Rajeev Chandrasekhar has said that for a large, connected nation like India, deepfakes and misinformation represent a “very problematic issue” for conducting safe, free and fair elections.

With respect to tackling deepfakes and misinformation, he said social media platforms are under watch on remedial actions they take in next 7-10 days on ‘advisories’ issued by the government.

The minister also promised that inaction on their part may prompt amendment to the IT Rules that will be more “prescriptive”.

In an interview with PTI, Chandrasekhar, who is Minister of State for IT and Electronics, counted the Digital Personal Data Protection (DPDP) legislation, setting up of grievances appellate panels and tighter accountability enforced on digital platforms for user safety as being among the big achievements for 2023.

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Chandrasekhar, however, said that the Digital India Act (that will supersede the 22-year-old Information Technology Act) despite undergoing extensive pre-consultations “ran out of time” and termed it “an unfinished agenda”.

“…The Digital India Act which we put a lot of effort into…spent almost a year on pre-consultations…we ran out of time…these things happen, but certainly, it’s an unfinished, incomplete agenda. But the principles of the DIA, the fact that we have advocated this new framework, and the fact that people are all beginning to understand some of the principles that we laid out during these consultations, is certainly gratifying,” the minister said, adding that this is something the government will take up.

India is headed for general elections early next year, and the DIA is expected to be legislated only after the 2024 polls and the formation of the government.

On the issue of deepfakes, the minister said that for a large, connected nation like India, which is the world’s largest democracy, deepfake represents “certainly a very, very problematic issue to the conducting of safe and free and fair elections”.

Moreover, it challenges the right to personal liberty and lives of individuals who can be targeted with deepfakes that mischaracterised them, their statements or behaviour.

The government has been flagging its worries to social media and other digital platforms about misinformation and deepfakes, and has alerted them about the problems it could create in a democracy like India. Unfortunately, the platforms did not heed the warnings or take necessary action in terms of prosecuting or barring those users who were violating the laws, thus triggering the need for advisories, he said.

“They should have done a number of things in terms of prosecuting and barring people who are violating these laws. They didn’t do any of this. It is becoming increasingly more and more visible that deepfakes are trying to influence election outcomes,” Chandrasekhar said.

The prime minister has signalled it as a real problem to be dealt with, and the IT ministry has held two rounds of consultation with intermediaries, following it up with advisories to platforms detailing the immediate actionable.

“We will keep an eye on the intermediaries for the 7-15 days after they come back from vacations…and if they still have not made a move, then we will basically amend the IT rules and notify amended IT rules to be as prescriptive as the advisories are,” the minister said.

The comment assumes significance as it underlines the toughening of the government’s position on the issue, amid growing concerns around deepfakes powered by AI. Earlier this week, the government directed all platforms to comply with the IT rules, and mandated companies to inform users in clear and precise terms about prohibited content.

The government had deliberately stayed away from being prescriptive so far, as it believed that laying out the guardrails and the principles would prompt intermediaries to comply. “But as it turns out…some have, and some have not…so those who have not, will have to read the advisory and follow what has been advised and if they do not, we will take a look and notify new IT rules, if necessary,” he said.

Advisories are aimed at helping platforms to better comply with the IT rules, and if the companies do not respond to it, then the government will encode them in law.

Asked if the homegrown social media platforms had taken a lead on abiding by the government’s directions on deepfake, the minister said, “I think it is clear that some of the platforms that are much more India-centric have a much more deeper respect for Indian law than somebody sitting in outside jurisdiction who is still living this ‘twilight zone’ about which law they should follow.”

The government talked tough with social media platforms after several ‘deepfake’ videos targeting leading actors, including Rashmika Mandanna, sparking public outrage and raising concerns over the weaponisation of technology for creating doctored content and harmful narratives.

The Centre has asked platforms to act decisively on deepfakes and align their terms of use and community guidelines as per the IT Rules and current laws. The government made it clear that any compliance failure would be dealt with strictly and evoke legal consequences.

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