The Centre has asked the Central Bureau of Investigation to probe the alleged misuse of data of India's Facebook users by British political consultancy firm Cambridge Analytica, Law and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad told the Rajya Sabha on Thursday.
In a significant move ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, Prasad said the probe by the CBI will determine whether Cambridge Analytica violated the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Indian Penal Code.
The data mining and analysis firm earlier faced allegations it used personal information harvested from 87 million Facebook accounts to help Donald Trump win the 2016 United States presidential election.
As members in the Upper House expressed concern over social media platforms being used to spread rumours and fake news, Prasad also said the government has asked them to provide technological solutions so that verified fake news and provocative messages can be filtered.
Cambridge Analytica is at the centre of a storm in the country over alleged breach of Facebook user data seeking information about its clients in India and whether it had harvested their user profiles.
The controversy had triggered a war of words between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress.
Prasad while responding to the concerns by members during a calling attention notice on the misuse of social media and propagation of fake news causing unrest and violence referred to the reported breach at Facebook where the data of a large number of users were allegedly compromised by Cambridge Analytica.
He said notices were immediately issued to the two companies and their response sought.
"Facebook responded that they will streamline their internal processes regarding handling of personal data. They stated that the case of Cambridge Analytica was a case of breach of trust. They promised to take various other steps to ensure that such breaches do not recur," Prasad said.
However, he said, Cambridge Analytica gave an initial response that data of Indians was not breached but this was not in conformity with what was reported by Facebook. Cambridge Analytica also did not respond to a subsequent notice.
"The Government has entrusted this issue to be investigated by the CBI for possible violation of Information Technology Act, 2000 and IPC," Prasad said, adding it is suspected that Cambridge Analytica may have been involved in illegally obtaining data of Indians which could be misused.
He said there were also reports that user data was 'illegally accessed by hardware manufacturers who had tie-ups with Facebook. In regard to this issue, Facebook has reported that they are not aware of any misuse of information, including Indian users' information'.
Prasad also said that the Centre will strengthen the legal framework to ensure that significant social media and instant messaging service providers targeting Indian users, do not deprive them of the right to hold proceedings in India and protecting Indian laws, the Electronics and Information Technology minister said.
He said the government was seriously considering appropriate rules requiring all social media platforms to locate their grievance officers in India.
"The duty of such grievance officer should cover not only to receive grievances on real time basis but also to inform law enforcement agencies," Prasad said.
Earlier, members including Leader of Opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad had raised serious concern over the incidents relating to abuse of social media leading to mob lynchings, with some of them even accusing the government of inaction.
In his response, Prasad said, "These (incidents) are deeply painful and regrettable, as well as a matter of deep concern for the Government. The Government has taken prompt action".
However, he said 'a challenge has emerged (but) in its wake, we cannot abolish the existence of social media. India has emerged as a digital power. Even a common Indian is armed with the power of information and can raise questions'.
"We should see both aspects. Social media is helping many students, small groups are exchanging information, farmers are using it. We need to introspect if you question the relevance of social media," he said.
He said the government planned to issue directives in public interest requiring all social media platforms to ensure that they 'do not become vehicles for promoting hatred, terrorism, money laundering, mob violence and rumour mongering'.
These platforms should provide technological solutions so that verified fake news and provocative messages can be filtered by technical solutions.
They should also 'bring in a more effective mechanism for receiving grievances and report to the law enforcement agencies. They should seek to provide the facility of verifying fake news on the platform itself', he said.
Observing that the government does not regulate content appearing on social networking platforms, Prasad said these platforms however are required to follow due diligence in accordance with the Information Technology Act and the Rules.
"They (social networking platforms) have also to follow Article 19(2) of the Constitution and ensure that their platforms are not used to commit and provoke terrorism, extremism, violence and crime," he said.