Zuckerberg v/s Govt. of India: 6 times the Facebook CEO got the stick

The latest Pegasus spyware that targeted WhatsApp users in India has put its parent company, Facebook under the scanner yet again. Unsurprisingly, the social media giant got away scot-free.

Mark Zuckerberg (1)
Martyn Williams/IDGNS

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finds himself at the receiving end of the Indian government's wrath yet again – this time around, it's for the Pegasus spyware that affected WhatsApp users.

Although the Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) sought specifics around the breach that affected government officials and journalists, WhatsApp is not in the wrong by not revealing complete information around the breach.

Was it unethical? Maybe; Illegal? No.

Guilty or not, neither Facebook nor WhatsApp has ever had to pay a penny in penalties or lawsuits in our country. Simply because the IT Act 2000 doesn't mandate a company to reveal the extent of a breach, as long it reports the occurrence of it.

We take a look at six instances in which Zuckerberg-owned Facebook and WhatsApp have been pulled up but gotten away scot-free. 

1. July 2017 – Internet.org courts controversy around data misuse

In 2013, when Facebook launched Internet.org – Zuckerberg’s idea of providing internet to the masses -- did seem like a noble intention at first. However, questions were raised around how the parent company would use the data.

As more people began voicing their concerns, Facebook stood accused of “digital colonialism”.

2. March 2018 – The infamous Cambridge Analytica scandal

Facebook finds itself in the worst controversy since its inception. With the murky details of the Cambridge Analytica scandal coming to light, the IT ministry issued a notice to Facebook over the data breach.

On the heels of Cambridge Analytica accessing personal information of an estimated 87 million US citizens, it was revealed that 0.22 percent of Indian users were affected by the privacy violation. With close to 250 million Facebook users in India (that’s 20 million more than the number of users in the US, by the way), the number of compromised accounts add up to around half a million.

The scandal exposed the true power of how data could play a critical role in moulding election results in a country.

3. November 2018 – WhatsApp struggles in fight against fake news and malicious content

Facebook-owned WhatsApp faced severe criticism for failing to detect and prevent criminal activities and malicious content being circulated on its platform.

A series of disturbing crimes including the lynching of innocent people stemmed from fake news and malevolent content. Additionally, instances of kids taking their own lives by participating in the Blue Whale and Momo challenge – both immensely popular in WhatsApp groups – thoroughly spooked the country.

In addition, an affidavit was filed in the Supreme Court accusing Facebook and WhatsApp of not taking enough measures against the perpetration of crime over social media channels.

To be fair to Facebook, the company did take stringent measures and hired several fact-checkers to keep malicious content in check. In addition to addressing and reviewing user complaints, Facebook’s measures to tackle the problem included alerting the fact-checking team if any content seemed suspicious or rapidly distributed over WhatsApp.

4. April 2019 – Facebook accused of being biased 

Notwithstanding Facebook’s commitment to monitor and regulate content, Mark Zuckerberg faced the ire of right-wing supporters in the days preceding the 2019 general elections.

A case was filed against Zuckerberg accusing Facebook of treason and interfering with the election process.

5. May 2019 – Facebook doesn’t fully comply with the Indian government’s request to share data

In the latter half of 2018, the Indian government made 20, 805 requests to Facebook to share user data. However, Facebook did not fully comply with the government and provided only 53 percent of the requested data.

Furthermore, the government also made 861 “emergency requests”, but Facebook consented partially by providing the data of 396 user accounts.

6. November 2019 – CERT pulls up WhatsApp following Pegasus spyware

Pegasus, the notorious spyware of Israeli origin, was discovered to have accessed personal information of 121 Indian users. Although the number may not sound alarming, it is reported that Pegasus targeted diplomats, government officials and journalists.

Although WhatsApp reported the breach, officials from the Computer Emergency Response Team were none too pleased with the lack of specific information on what data was compromised and the extent of the breach.

India – a humongous treasure trove of free-for-all data – thanks to its ineffective cyber laws

In spite of numerous data breach violations by Facebook and WhatsApp, the social media giant has never had to pay a penalty to the Indian government.

In comparison, Facebook was hit hard by a USD 35 billion class action suit in the court of Illinois. So what explains the lack of accountability in our country?

It’s simply because Facebook’s misadventures can be called unethical, but by no means, illegal – all thanks to India’s archaic and ineffectual cyber law. The Indian IT Act 2000 is a “paper tiger”, as cyber law expert Dr Pavan Duggal calls it.

The Act does not make it mandatory for companies like Facebook to disclose the complete information on breaches and vulnerabilities and the penalties imposed are almost non-existent.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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