Govindacharya emerges as an unlikely influencer of India’s tech policies late in his career

A former pracharak of the RSS and once a powerful general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Govindacharya was a strident critic of India’s obliging response to globalisation and the World Trade Organization, the international trade ar...

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Over the years, Govindacharya has sought intervention from the govt and other Constitutional bodies on several issues, such as urging the EC to regulate the use of social media by political parties.
You wouldn’t expect Roger Waters and KN Govindacharya to have a common inspiration, would you? It turns out, they do: George Orwell.

As the Coronavirus pandemic began to spread in India, the Narendra Modi government built an app called AarogyaSetu (meaning Bridge of Health), and mandated all citizens to install it on their smartphones and populate it with their health and location data. The app then computes the possibility of the person having come in contact with a Covid-19 positive person and the chances of herself being infected. It advises the user the course of action to follow and also sends the information to government databases.

On May 6, Govindacharya, through his lawyer, Virag Gupta, sent a legal memo to AarogyaSetu’s creator, National Informatics Centre, saying that the app had poor privacy controls and inadequate data safety. (Last week, the government threw open the app’s source code for public scrutiny.) The salvo was the latest in a series from the veteran politician who has made an unlikely reinvention from being a champion of protectionist policies, village-oriented development and cow-based economy to a voice to reckon with on matters of tech and digital policy in the twilight of his career. He is 77. How did the person best known in Indian politics for championing swadeshi economics (economic nationalism) become interested in tech policy?

“I was on study leave from the party (BJP) when I read Orwell. I realised how technology will prevent us from behaving like human beings,” says Govindacharya. “The integration of technology, finance and law was driving the world. I could see that the Indian state would become more subservient to them.” It is not that Orwell had overnight turned the veteran RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) ideologue into a national security and digital safety activist. He was merely picking up the threads of past, unfinished battles.


A former pracharak of the RSS and once a powerful general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Govindacharya was a strident critic of India’s obliging response to globalisation and the World Trade Organization, the international trade arbiter born on January 1, 1995, the same year internet arrived in India. “In the negotiations leading up to it, we could see that the dice was loaded against countries like ours,” remembers Govindacharya. And, to him, everyone was complicit, including his own party.

He relates an incident from 1994 to drive home the point. As the formation of WTO was entering its final stages, the then RSS general secretary K Sudarshan wrote a memo against it and asked the BJP members of Parliament to start a signature campaign to build pressure on the government. The members were reluctant and wanted AB Vajpayee, who was then opposition leader, to sign it first. When they took it to him, Vajpayee put it in the pocket of his kurta, where it remained buried.

In 2012, Virag Gupta filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court on behalf of Govindacharya, raising four broad points of cyber jurisprudence — national security, safety of women and children, liability of internet and social media companies and data protection. Over four years and 45 hearings, the court gave several instructions, making the petition an important milestone in the evolution of Indian tech policies. One asked internet and social media companies operating in India to appoint grievance officers. It was for the first time anywhere in the world that the companies had to appoint country-specific ombudsmen.

The other sought to ensure that children of 13 years and below could not own and operate social media accounts as the companies’ own policies, which defer to US laws, stated. On the court’s instructions, for the first time the government also introduced a data localisation policy for email and social media use. It prohibited its employees from using for official purposes any service that does not store data within India.

Over the years, Govindacharya has also sought intervention from the government and other Constitutional bodies on several issues, such as urging the Election Commission to regulate the use of social media by political parties.

A lawyer who works on privacy and data protection issues told ET Magazine on condition of anonymity that the legal battle was important and needed. He, however, was not sure about its efficacy. “The order on the grievance officer was their only real victory. Platforms can build technology whichever way they want. And they can play ball amongst themselves until you get tired.” He, however, added Gupta and Govindacharya were successful in building pressure on the companies and government.

An executive at a social media company, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, says Govindacharya appears to be “motivated for ideological reasons. Their arguments lack the depth of understanding of the detrimental consequences their asks could have on the growth of local tech ecosystem”. Ideology certainly is a critical element in the approach.

"We have to think what should be the swadeshi framework of technology. Everything stemmed from the European vision of the globe and what was useful for their development. Free flow of capital and technology but not of humans. India was a nation of software exporters but hardly had a role in hardware, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotech or genetic engineering. In 1999-2000 (software engineers fixing Y2K), we were like computeriya mazdoors; like girmitiyas," he says, evoking the indentured labourers that European colonisers shipped from India to work mostly in their far-flung island plantations in the 19th century.

He returned to court in March with a fresh writ petition. "When foreign internet companies make a lot of money from India, why should they not pay their share of taxes?" asks Gupta. Govindacharya¡¦s petition asks for disclosure of designated officers or Indian representatives of internet and social media companies from whom the government gets information or data.

Last week, Gupta was back in the Delhi HC after the ¡§Bois Locker Room incident¡¨, to urge the court for stricter monitoring and enforcement of laws protecting minors on social media. "If social media companies are able to weed out billions of fake accounts and target hate speech, harassment, pornography and self-injury, how are they not able to check underage participation?" he asks. Over the next few months, the issues raised by Govindacharya would be examined in the country¡¦s highest courtrooms. This time they are unlikely to disappear into a deep kurta pocket.
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