Russian interference in the US elections via Facebook. The Cambridge Analytica data breach. “Fake news” entering the lexicon. Data security and privacy becoming the need of the hour. Mob violence sparked off by rumours and spread via WhatsApp forwards. A growing drive towards data localisation. The past two years have shaken the world, with governments in India and elsewhere sitting up and taking notice of social media and internet companies. More specifically, trying to rein in and regulate them—ensuing in standoffs with Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others. But Virag Gupta is way ahead of the curve.
For at least six years now, Gupta, a Supreme Court lawyer, and others working with him have taken on the likes of Facebook, Orkut (a once-popular, now defunct social media network), Google and Uber. And most recently, WhatsApp—Gupta’s organisation, an NGO called the Centre for Accountability and Systemic Change (CASC), filed a petition against the Facebook-owned messaging company and the Indian government in the Supreme Court. The petition accused WhatsApp of failing to comply with regulations on data storage and not appointing a grievance officer.
“We are not against any individual organisation, but we are working that the new legal system must evolve along with the new digital economy,” he says over the phone. One carefully measured, lawyerly word at a time.
To that end, Gupta and CASC have many a grouse. That digital businesses in India get unfair advantages; that foreign companies aren’t paying taxes here; that many social media platforms are not properly regulated; that Indians’ data on said platforms is not secure.
And—very, very specifically—that these companies do not have “grievance officers” (we’re going to be seeing this term a lot) in the country.
Gupta embodies a drive towards both privacy and protectionism—and against what he sees as “neocolonialists spread all across the globe” and “the new-age East India Companies”. A push to safeguard people’s data from foreign companies not “abiding by Indian laws”, with a strong nationalistic flavour. Gupta, for his part, is firm that he’s apolitical. However, at least one of his associates has links to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
A frequent face on news television debates on cyber law—conspicuous by his greying hair, trademark square spectacles and a thick moustache—the 49-year-old lawyer is emblematic of a certain type of legal activism. One which has the potential to shape policymaking on digital rights and regulations, and more. And has only been rising in the wake of India’s rapidly growing tech ecosystem.