In an interview with Soumyarendra Barik, he spoke about China’s influence on the Indian tech ecosystem, the future of AI regulations and how the government plans to deal with misinformation ahead of this year’s Lok Sabha election. Edited excerpts:
While you managed to pass the data protection Act and made some changes to the IT Rules, there are concerns that in the last two years, we are seeing a greater degree of centralisation in the laws. The government seems to be exerting ever greater control over it. How do you respond to those concerns?
Having the government regulate the internet is a concern, but it is not based on the reality of what the government wants to do. We are trying to create a framework of laws that will ensure a balanced relationship between consumers and the platforms based on accountability, safety and trust. Any disputes arising between them will be adjudicated by either an independent regulator or the court system. The government does not want to be the arbiter of any such disputes. Unfortunately, we have been dragged into this for several years now because of Section 79 of the IT Act. For a long time, consumers have looked to the government to resolve disputes and when platforms behave like they are not accountable, because they have this free pass and immunity, it becomes the government of India’s problem.
Going ahead, will the government’s role in enforcing tech regulations increase?
I don’t see the government’s role in any way expanding. In fact, for some things, like for content takedowns, the government’s role will diminish. Either there will be independent regulators like the data production board, or there will be the court of law. My own assessment is that competition issues will be dealt with over time by the competition commission. The issues of privacy, data protection will be dealt with by the data protection board. Then there will be harms that will be dealt with by laws and provisions under law, which will be adjudicated by the judicial system.
AI has become this big buzzword. The government has indicated that it largely views the technology favourably. But in the next decade or so, what do you think our regulatory approach towards AI should be?
AI existed 35 years ago. It is like the perfect storm has happened in the last five years, which is why we have this breakthrough of generative AI. You now have availability of GPUs, and the ability to scrape the internet and create trillions of parameters that you can use to train a model, which was never there before. AI, without any ambiguity and without overstating it, is the greatest invention in our lifetimes. It has tremendous power to transform the way we look at health, governance, education, security etc. But we also understand that if we don’t put the guardrails in place, AI can also go off and explode into areas that will cause harm. That is why we need a global framework for AI that we are pushing for through the GPAI.
So far non-state actors did not have access to cutting edge hardware tech which gave governments an upper hand over them. But that could change with AI. One doesn’t need to pass on a fighter plane to a terrorist anymore, but a simple algorithm could be weaponised…
There is commoditisation of electronics. The Houthis in the Middle East today are dealing with big navies with drones, which are Chinese-made. Now, with WhatsApp and other messenger services that have end-to-end encryption, it poses a significant security challenge especially when people who are bad guys are using it. So there is a change even in law enforcement, in intelligence gathering and in the way you look at threats.
What do you think is the future of encrypted messaging platforms like WhatsApp? As someone from the government, how will your lens evolve towards them?
How do you see China’s influence, or presence in India’s tech space going ahead?
Given the policies of our government, I will safely bet with you that we will be significantly ahead of China in semiconductors, in design, research and manufacturing. I’m giving you a goal post, this will happen in the next 10 years. In the global value chain of electronics manufacturing, we were almost zero and absent a decade ago, we are at where we are today at around 8 per cent. We want to get to 20 per cent by about 2027-29.
The consumption and demand for electronics is going up in double digits. While China today has 70 plus per cent of the $1.5 trillion value chain for electronics, going ahead, the market will grow to $2 trillion, of which China’s share will come down to about 50 to 54 percent and that balance 20-25 percent would be hopefully divided amongst India, Vietnam and some other countries.
Internally, many hardware companies have expressed concerns about the predictability around their business with their suppliers from China. They fear a discriminatory behaviour from the government towards such suppliers. How do you respond to those concerns?
We anticipate that as product manufacturing grows in India, for IT hardware, servers, smartphones, the natural consequence will be that the vendors, the supply chain will also look to start their capacities in India. Some of them will be Chinese. Do we think we are going to prohibit all Chinese companies? There is no policy to that account, as long as we make sure that these companies are open, transparent, and work under Indian law.
On semiconductors, we have had the Micron deal, but it has been relatively quiet since then. Is there any update?
I have an update, which is that on the back of the Micron plant, we have got two very exciting and credible companies. One of them is Tata, the second one is a name I can’t really quote till I get their permission, but it is a big name in the foundry business. We also have a number of packaging plant proposals. After some of those missteps that we made in the early days with the Vedanta Foxconn proposal, we are at a place where India is developing as an investment destination for semiconductor manufacturing, packaging, research, design and talent.
We are heading towards this year’s general election, which is when a lot of objectionable activity on social media platforms escalates. Are you equipped to deal with that?
The Election Commision is determined to make sure there is no intervention of any kind on social media in our democratic process. The rules today are very clear. It gives the appropriate authority, the powers to do the right thing in terms of prosecuting those who proliferate misinformation or fake information or anything that is detrimental to the electoral process. Certainly, before the elections, we will sensitise platforms.