The Indian government on Wednesday warned social media platforms like Facebook of stringent action if any attempt was made by them to influence the country's electoral process through 'undesirable means'.
Amid probe by US privacy watchdog and British lawmakers over a potential breach of user confidentiality by Facebook, IT and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the Indian government fully supports freedom of press, speech and expression and is all for free exchange of ideas on social media.
However, any attempt by social media sites, including Facebook, to influence India's electoral process through undesirable means will not be tolerated, he told reporters in Parliament House complex.
"...let me make it very, very clear, we fully support freedom of press, speech and expression; we fully support free exchange of ideas on social media. But any attempt, covert or overt, by social media, including Facebook, of trying to influence India's electoral process through undesirable means will neither be appreciated nor be tolerated," Prasad said.
"If need be, stringent action will be taken," he added.
Stating that 20 crore Indians were using Facebook, making it the company's largest market outside of the US, Prasad cautioned the social media giant and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg of repercussions under IT Act in case of any data breach came to light.
"Mr Mark Zuckerberg you better note the observation of the IT Minister of India. We welcome the FB profile in India, but if any data theft of Indians is done through the collusion of FB system, it shall not be tolerated. We have got stringent power in the IT Act, we shall use it, including summoning you in India," Prasad warned.
Asked if the government would initiate a probe on data use by Facebook, Prasad said that India had a regulator in the form of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), and in case of any specific complaints, the same would be taken under a structured investigation.
"We have got very robust mechanism available, we will look into it. But today, this very stern observation I gave that let my warning be heard across the Atlantic far away in California," he said.
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.
"The issue concerns national interest and national security. And the BJP will take it very seriously if by collusive methods the data assets of Indians are pilfered... My caution is with regard to democratic process," he said.
The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an independent government body charged with ensuring that companies abide by their own privacy policies, is looking at whether Facebook violated a 2011 consent decree after media reports alleged that it had handed the data of millions of users to a political consultancy.
Reports had also alleged that Cambridge Analytica used data mined from Facebook in the voter research it conducted for President Donald Trump during the 2016 elections campaign. The matter is also being investigated by UK authorities.
Prasad on Wednesday alleged that Congress party had links with Cambridge Analytica.
"My question to Congress party is whether to win elections, Congress will depend on data manipulation and theft of data," he said. "What is the role of Cambridge Analytica in social media profile of Rahul Gandhi?" he asked.
Quoting reports, Prasad alleged that Cambridge Analytica -- the agency roped in by Congress to run their 2019 campaign and termed as their 'Brahmastra' in certain sections of media -- is accused of using bribes, sex workers to entrap politicians and stealing data from Facebook.
Prasad sought to know from the Congress party as to how much data trade it had with Cambridge Analytica in view of recent Gujarat and North East elections, and the upcoming elections in Karnataka.