Indian PM Modi visits US tech chiefs in wake of draconian encryption policy debacle

Such is the immense potential of the Indian market that not a peep was uttered by US tech companies about a very controversial encryption policy draft, made public and then retracted before Modi left India.

It is a testimony to the immense attractiveness of the Indian market that the leaders of some of the most powerful technology companies in the world rallied around to meet and indulge the leader of a country, one who wanted to effectively handcuff the same companies and the services they offer.

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Narendra Modi at the Facebook town hall meeting with Mark Zuckerberg

Or at least, that's what events that transpired over the last week or two indicated.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi just concluded a whirlwind, two-day tour of Silicon Valley where he rubbed shoulders with some of the region's most prominent tech chieftans, amongst them Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Google head Sundar Pichai, Tesla supremo Elon Musk and Microsoft chief Satya Nadella. As you read this, he would have just concluded a tete-a-tete with Barrack Obama.

And yet, a few days before Modi left for the US, the Indian government introduced one of the most asinine draft policies on technology ever seen in India.

The policy called for all citizens to store every one of their encrypted messages and data in a plain-text form that would make it readable by the government for a period of 90 days. In other words, any Gmail email or Whatsapp instant message received by a user would have to be converted into plain text and saved, lest the wrath of the government fall upon them, most messaging and email services today being encrypted end-to-end.

The draft policy on encryption contained other preposterous diktats. "Businesses also have to keep all encrypted data for 90 days from the date of transaction and made available to Law Enforcement Agencies," said the draft policy. "Entities in India are responsible for providing unencrypted details of communication with foreign companies in readable plaintext," it added.

If this wasn't bad enough, another clause mandated that all IT companies, including the likes of Microsoft, Apple and Google must hand over their encryption keys to the government if they want to offer their services in India. Experts say that all of this was in abject blindness to the fact that these policies, if passed, would endanger the privacy of every user, since plaintext messages are extremely vulnerable to being hacked.

It is difficult to overstate how preposterous it is that a supposedly tech-savvy government with a leader touted to be a social media and technology sophisticate, whose pet projects are those of digital inclusion and attracting technology manufacturing in India, could allow something like this to be conceptualised, never mind disseminated to the public.

After all, every Android device and iPhone is equipped with encryption technology. Every Apple and Windows computer also uses the same, not to mention pretty much every messaging and email service on the planet.

After a widespread hue and cry about this draconian measure, Minister of Communications and Information Ravi Shankar Prasad said last week that the draft policy would be withdrawn and rewritten. "I wish to make it very clear that it is just a draft and not the view of the government," said Prasad mystifyingly.

The fall guy for this debacle, according to the government, is a junior official who is a scientist. This person, according to Prasad, penned said policy in a state of confusion, and then, without permission from his higher ups, went public with it. If that seems unbelievable, Prasad then explained that the wrong use of the phrase "users of encryption" instead of "creators of encryption" had led to all the confusion.

Finally, after witnessing the conflagration that erupted when the draft policy went live, the Department of Electronics, Information and Technology quickly clarified that chats on popular social networking sites like Whatsapp and Facebook were exempted from these mandates.

Observers of the encryption policy suggest that it is just a matter of time until the policy is slightly watered down and re-introduced in some fashion. Which is why it is astounding that none of the leaders of the companies who Modi visited mentioned anything about it. The only explanation can be a case of willful blindness. Indeed, Facebook's Zuckerberg orchestrated a town hall meeting that was more known for its vapid and inane questions posed to Modi rather than anything substantive which could have included questions about digital privacy, a burning issue in India today.

The Zuckerberg-Modi mutual admiration society makes sense when you realise that Facebook itself courted significant controversy with its Internet.org initiative for violating net neutrality laws. Not allowing anything sensitive to be debated would be ideal for both parties.

Modi's election as Prime Minister of India in May last year breathed fresh air into the stale, corrupt and cynical climate of Indian politics. Here was a man who came from poverty, who through sheer grit and intelligence rose from being a humble tea seller to the incorruptible leader of India. This was a dramatic contrast to the silver-spoon-in-the-mouth type leadership dynamics of dynastic politicians like the Gandhis, who allowed massive corruption scandals to take place openly under the public eye on their watch while the economy sputtered.

Yet, things are not all that rosy at home for Modi today. Yes, the PM is still very popular. And there have been a few encouraging developments such as the Foxconn $5 billion investment in the Indian state of Maharashtra which is run by the same political party as Modi's.

But many who have begun an analysis of the last six months of his government say that Modi's rule is beginning to appear to be more smoke-and-mirrors than anything else. Critics claim that there hasn't been a single significant or bold policy that has gone into implementation beyond the usual Modi image-boosting ones.

He is being dubbed a "missing Prime Minister" known for inaction and large publicity stunts, like this recent US visit, more than anything else. "So far, the new government has done nothing but talk...Modi tells a good story....he is doing all the right things...but there has been no real action," says investment guru Jim Rogers who has decided to short India.

Others say that the Modi government has become more known for its sloganeering abilities (Make in India, Startup India, Stand up India) than for policy implementation. Even a staunch defender of Modi, feminist scholar Madhu Kishwar, said that "Either Modi is floundering because the task is too big and he doesn't have a competent team or because he has decided he has reached the acme and doesn't need to bother any more."

This is probably as good a guess as any to surmise the genesis of the daft draft encryption policy. To extrapolate from Kishwar's observation, how could Modi not know about the draft? Never mind Modi, how could the Minister of Communications and Information not know about it? What does this say about the kind of processes that the government has in place for policy design, never mind implementation? Of course, if Modi and his minister did know about the draft, that raises a whole lot of other, far more troubling questions.

Still, regardless of their political persuasion, every Indian will undoubtedly be hoping that Modi's critics aren't accurate and that Modi's true skills as a deviser and implementer of visionary policies will become obvious in another year or so.

After all, one in three Indians under the age of 29 is unemployed today, and if current trends of labour participation continue, there will be 420 million unemployed youth by 2030, according to research firm Crisil.

This will prove to be nothing short of social catastrophe for a country that is running out of time.