By Devidutta Tripathy and Sruthi Gottipati
NEW DELHI, Jan 10 (Reuters) - India’s election regulator dropped plans on Thursday to partner Google Inc on a project to ease voter access to information, after a backlash against the move from campaigners who claimed Google and the U.S. government could use the data for spying.
Google, which works with governments in other countries including Mexico and the Philippines on similar programmes, said it has not talked with the government about any project that would have involved data not already publicly available.
India, the world’s largest democracy, will go to the polls in a general election due by May. Google, the world’s No.1 search engine, had pitched a project to the Election Commission to help create a simpler and faster tool for voters to check whether they were registered correctly or not.
But the plan was opposed by the Indian Infosec Consortium, a government and private sector-backed alliance of cyber security experts. The group said in a statement last week it feared Google would collaborate with “American agencies” for espionage purposes.
Google would have shared the software tools required with India and offered the help of its engineers in a non-commercial agreement, Gaurav Bhaskar, a spokesman for Google’s Indian unit, said. But the election panel was free to decide on hiring another company’s services for hosting the data, he said.
The Election Commission did not give a reason for dropping the plan. But an official, who did not want to be named, told Reuters that Google’s proposal was not a major improvement on its existing website, and that Google’s involvement had drawn criticism in India.
U.S. electronic surveillance practices have been in the spotlight after damaging disclosures from former spy contractor Edward Snowden. India-U.S. relations have also been damaged by a spat over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York last month.
“Google is committed to help make public information on the web easily accessible to internet users across the country,” Google said in a statement.
“It is unfortunate that our discussion with the Election Commission of India to change the way users access their electoral information, that is publicly available, through an online voter look up tool, were not fruitful,” it added.
A member of the ruling Congress Party said the plan was a “sensitive issue” and that political parties had not been consulted. A spokeswoman for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party said that the Election Commission needed to protect voter data.
“After due consideration, the Commission has decided not to pursue the proposal any further,” the regulator said in a brief statement on its website on Thursday.
This is not the first time Google has faced political heat in India. The country’s federal mapping agency had last year filed a police complaint that Google had violated rules by asking users to add information about their local area for its online map services.
In 2011, city police in Bangalore ordered Google to suspend a Street View service over security concerns, three weeks after the company started collecting images from the city.