The online data-theft controversy hit the Indian shores with IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad threatening to summon Facebook promoter Mark Zuckerberg even as he stirred a political storm by questioning Congress’ links with Cambridge Analytica accused of misusing data sourced from the social media giant. The Congress hit back by linking the tainted company with BJP’s high-octane social media campaign for 2014 elections.
“Mr. Mark Zuckerberg you better know the observation of IT minister of India, if any data theft of Indians is done with the collusion of FB systems, it will not be tolerated. We have got stringent powers in the IT act including summoning you in India,” he said.
While assuring that the government will not sit back if Indian interests are compromised, Prasad asked three questions of the Congress to know if it had engaged Cambridge Analytica to drive its social media campaign for the general elections due in 2019.
“Will the Congress party depend on data manipulation and theft to woo voters? Does the Congress endorse the methods used by Cambridge Analytica, namely sex, sleaze and fake news? What is Cambridge Analytica’s role in Rahul Gandhi’s social media profile?” asked Prasad.
The firm, with access to personal data of millions of Facebook users, has been stuck by a data leak controversy. The data was allegedly used to identify and influence American voters to help the US president Donald Trump win elections.
Referring to recent media reports, the IT minister asked the Congress to come clean on its engagement with the tainted firm. The reports had also claimed that Rahul Gandhi had met Cambridge Analytica’s boss Alexander Nix to work out the Congress strategy for the general elections.
But the Congress hit back by denying any links with the dubious company. The Congress quoted open domain information on the website of Indian arm of Cambridge Analystica —Ovleno Business Intelligence (OBI) part of Strategic Comunications Laboratories — that it was part of the BJP’s campaign.
“Cambridge Analytica’s linked website shows that in 2010 its services were used by BJP and JD(U),” said Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala highlighting that OBI is run by Janata Dal (U) leader KC Tyagi’s son. He claimed that OBI talked of having achieved “target 272+” , providing constituency-wise database to BJP candidates and extending support to it in national elections and state elections of Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi. “It is not me who is saying so; it is Cambridge Analytica which is saying so. And they have partners in India whose businesses complement each other. They have done 272+ campaign and the campaign for four states. OBI’s services were used by Rajnath Singh in 2009,” he said.
Surjewala also alleged that Modi hired a German-American firm APCO for ‘Brand Gujarat’ and for organising his international events, adding the same company was hired by Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha and President of Kazakhstan Noor Sultan.
“Indian National Congress or the Congress president has never used or hired the services of a company called Cambridge Analytica. It is a fake agenda and white lie being dished out by union minister Ravi Shankar Prasad,” said Surjewala adding that BJP’s factory of fake news has produced another fake product.
Congress’ social media head Divya Spandana also refuted the allegations. “News about Congress engaged/engaging with Cambridge Analytica is absolutely false,” she tweeted.
But the BJP insisted that the government is taking the Congress’ links with the firm seriously and will investigate the matter. The alleged meetings between the opposition leaders and Nix, now sacked, are under scanner.
Surjewala said Modi met the company’s founder Mark Zuckerberg in the US and is said to be his friend. He said threats were being given to media under the Modi government and now a warning was being given to an international media platform too.
Incidentally, this is not the first standoff between the Indian policymakers and Facebook. TRAI, in 2016, has issued regulations on discriminatory pricing over internet access that had led to ban of platforms like Facebook’s Free Basics.