#TheLawmakers: “The Internet does not belong to anybody” – Rajeev Chandrasekhar
Interviews

#TheLawmakers: “The Internet does not belong to anybody” – Rajeev Chandrasekhar

Pallavi Saluja

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament, started his career as an engineer in the Silicon Valley before becoming a telecom entrepreneur, and finally joining politics.

In this interview with Bar & Bench’s Pallavi Saluja, Chandrasekhar talks about Net Neutrality, the role of the Supreme Court and why he filed the Section 66A petition.

Pallavi Saluja: What is your stand on Net Neutrality?

Rajeev Chandrasekhar: My position on net neutrality is very simple – the internet was designed and developed to be a public utility. It is a public space, which has no commercial ownership and no overwhelming influence.

And that essential character of the internet helps the internet consumer do whatever he wants without needing a regulator to regulate his rights. The moment commercial interest starts diluting that, then the overall character of the internet gets altered, therefore affecting the rights and freedom of the consumers.

The internet should remain the same way; there should be no gatekeepers or commercial influence that starts altering the relationship between the consumer and the internet.

PS: And does the DoT’s Committee report support this?

RC: It is unfortunately a repetition of what the DoT has constantly done, which is sitting in Delhi and making reports which are heavily influenced by only one stakeholder – the industry. The DoT  supposedly has 13 floors of technical expertise in the Sanchar Bhavan. But this report betrays a remarkable lack of understanding of how the core technologies that are underpinning the internet are evolving. It is almost like saying, “I don’t understand it, but I will use ancient Hindu scriptures to decide the future of technology!”

It is almost like saying, “I don’t understand it, but I will use ancient Hindu scriptures to decide the future of technology!”

At best it is very bad, and at worst, it is highly amateur and compromised.

What is required for the DoT to do is that they have to lay down the rules for engagement of the internet for all stakeholders very clearly, especially with regard to those that have the power to distort the engagement – the telecom companies.

PS: Why do you think net neutrality is so important?

RC: That’s like asking me why my DNA is important to me! That is the core underpinning of the internet – it doesn’t belong to anybody. Consumers make the internet what it is; they bring the innovation and technology. It has been a collaborative platform, which allows consumers and technologies to interplay, exist and evolve. If you have a few gatekeepers deciding what experience the consumers should have and the terms of the experience, it will completely alter the concept of the internet.

So, net neutrality is important to allow the internet to proliferate in India. Internet proliferation is key to Digital India and transforming governance and the citizen-government relationship. Therefore, net neutrality equals democracy 2.0.

PS: You were one of the petitioners in the Section 66A case. Being a member of parliament, you still had to move court to get 66A scrapped. Why?

RC: This is something that lawyers especially should take note of – we have a system where a Legislature makes the law and Judiciary interprets those laws. But what has been happening in the past decade or so is that the two fundamental bodies of democracy – the Executive and the Legislature are not doing their job adequately.

For example, this issue of freedom of expression on the internet ideally should have been dealt with by the government of the day. They should have said that the law is wrong as it infringes on the Constitution. However, they didn’t. If the government fails, then it is for the Parliament to do it, but they didn’t do it either. So a lawmaker has no option but to go to the next avenue, which is the Supreme Court.

It is ironic that as a Member of Parliament, I have to repeatedly go to the Supreme Court. It is a reflection of how the Parliament and the Executive are failing its citizens.

PS: Some say that the Supreme Court has exceeded its powers.

RC: The three institutions of democracy are in place to provide necessary checks and balances so that the citizen doesn’t lose his rights guaranteed under the Constitution. If the Executive and the Legislature failed, and if this were a banana republic, then the entire system would have failed. But in our system, if two bodies are compromised or captured by vested interests, the Supreme Court steps in. I believe that the Supreme Court stepping in is a sign of the maturity of our democracy. It has had to repeatedly step in on issues of corruption, misgovernance, freedom of expression etc. In doing this, it is not overstepping, it is doing it only because the other two are under-delivering.

It is not abnormal for business in India to constantly complain about overstepping. Over the last 60 years, they are used to a regime where they are not questioned. Now, when someone challenges them, it becomes overstepping. Money has created such a stranglehold on policy making and governance that the only institution that is pushing back is the Supreme Court.

Money has created such a stranglehold on policy making and governance that the only institution that is pushing back is the Supreme Court. Having said that, the Supreme Court in recent times is not demonstrating the same calibre as Justice Kapadia’s Supreme Court.

Having said that, the Supreme Court in recent times is not demonstrating the same calibre as Justice Kapadia’s Supreme Court. But as an institution, the judiciary today has the most credibility among all three.

PS: Private Members Bill – Do you think they can bring about change?

RC: Before the Anti-Defection Law, every MP could stand up for an issue regardless of his party’s official position. Currently, no party member can oppose a Bill that his party has introduced. This, in essence, made individual opinion and capacity defunct. While anti-defection seeks to serve one purpose, which is to prevent dal badlus, it has killed individual enterprise/opinions of lawmakers.

The Private Members Bill initiative in theory is an extremely sound idea. It is a way for people outside the government to introduce laws in Parliament.

Unfortunately, in our system, it is not given the same weightage as it is given in the UK and US. They can be introduced on a few days in a session – usually Friday’s. They almost never get fully introduced or debated. Given the fact that it is not seen as very effective, the quality also declines. So, it’s a vicious loop.

The Transgender Rights Bill was an aberration. I would rather have that be the rule than the exception.

PS: You moved the Privacy Protection Bill.

RC: If you look at Digital India today, there is a big missing element – individual privacy. Privacy laws in India are antiquated, ineffective and very badly enforced. There has been proliferation of databases like Aadhaar, Election Commission, and Income Tax. All these databases have huge amounts of individual data. Nobody has a clue as to what laws prevent your information in any of these databases from being misused. So I think there is need for an over-arching privacy legislation that puts the onus on the bodies that have these databases to not misuse, sell or abuse the data.

PS: You have been on several committees as a Rajya Sabha MP. Talk us through your experience

RC: I have been on Standing Committees and Select Committees. The Select Committees in particular are very powerful tools to enact, review and improve legislation. For example, I am on the Select Committee for the Real Estate Bill. The Select Committee went on tour to Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, and Mumbai to meet the stakeholders including the consumers. Every city taught us that consumers have a fundamental problem, which is that their rights are not protected by any legislation. Therefore, the Real Estate Act that was passed by the Lok Sabha is now being reconstructed by the Select Committee with a fundamental view of enshrining consumer rights.

If you ask any consumer, they will say that the Real Estate Bill is the best thing that has happened to the real estate sector. So Select Committees are a tremendously powerful way for Parliament to increase its credibility among citizens.

PS: What prompted you to join politics?

RC: When I joined the telecom industry, the period from 1995 to 2006 had some of the best entrepreneurship and some of the worst politics. I have seen the underbelly of Indian politics and what it can do to entrepreneurial dreams at the stroke of a pen. I’ve gone from setting up a billion dollar company to being bankrupt to reviving myself, all because I ran afoul of some politicians.

I’ve gone from setting up a billion dollar company to being bankrupt to reviving myself, all because I ran afoul of some politicians.

So even when I was in telecom, I wanted to fix this. It may sound idealistic and over-the-top, but it was what made me take up an offer when I was not looking for it. Interestingly enough, a certain A Raja happened and I made my mark attacking telecom policy! But that was never my intention; I wanted to clean it up but I didn’t know they would go and make a mess of it.

PS: Why did you choose to go independent?

RC: I am an independent person, regardless of whichever organization I’m in. It just so happened that the opportunity I got in the first term made me an independent member. That allowed me six years of taking an independent view on issues that I believe in, which I wouldn’t have been able to do if I were in a party.

Even though it sounds nice being independent, it comes with its own political disadvantages. You have to make yourself; you don’t have a party to back you, or the support of senior leaders to give you visibility. You have to walk your own path, and in Delhi politics, doing that makes it difficult to get noticed.

But in the second term, I’ve been getting noticed and I have more credibility and the fact that I’ve been aligned with the NDA has helped me as well.

PS: How do you choose your lawyers?

RC: I always work with young lawyers who understand the crux of the issue. My fights and litigation are always around core principles. For example, Sajan (Poovayya) has worked with me extensively on a lot of issues regarding holding the Karnataka government accountable, because he believes in that. When the lawyer with his legal expertise and the petitioner with his expertise on the issue meet, you create a case that is very compelling.

When the lawyer with his legal expertise and the petitioner with his expertise on the issue meet, you create a case that is very compelling.

PS: What advice would you give to young lawyers?

RC: I encourage young lawyers to do a bit of pro bono work. It teaches you so much. At the end of the day, idealism, law and the real world is a tremendous mix. And that idealism you’ll develop only if you do some pro bono work. Learning to fight the system is what all lawyers should have experience in.

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