Achilles’ heel of data protection

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Achilles’ heel of data protection

Tuesday, 23 July 2019 | Ashit K Srivastava

Laws surrounding personal information need checks and balances to ensure a robust framework so that citizens can exercise their right freely

Abdication of virtue is not the death of a human being but the death of humanity. Morality per se does not have a symbiotic relation with the evolutionary process of a creature but the mere fact that a human being, among other species, was able to reach a state of consciousness — unmapped by other creatures on the earth — tells a lot about human existence. Words will be imperfect to define this magnanimity. It wouldn’t, therefore, be immature to expect virtuous generosity from a human being. However, this is not to be. In this modern era, virtue, which at best can be defined as a communitarian good, is now a rare commodity in a world full of rationalists.

E-commerce websites in our country best define this feeling. Before I construct my argument behind this obscure statement, I would like to retell the story of ‘Myth of the Ring of Gyges’ as told by Plato in Book II of his ‘Republic’. The story revolves around a shepherd known by the name Gyges, who was in the service of the King of Lydia. Once there was an earthquake due to which a small opening was made in the earth. Out of curiosity, Gyges descended into that opening only to find a dead body with a gold ring on the fingers.  Gyges was greedy enough to silt away the ring from the body and crept out of that opening.

The great thing about this ring was that it had the magical power of making the wearer of the ring invisible. With the help of the ring, Gyges was able to seduce the Queen of Lydia and conspired with her to kill the King. The philosophical analogy which Plato tries to discern from this made-up story is that man is unjust in chances where he will never be caught.

But how is this story related to the e-commerce websites in India? Most dealers of such websites follow a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy to the informational privacy of their consumers. A quick look at any e-commerce website will make this clear. Just scroll down to read their privacy policy and one will realise that it is one-sided, favouring the website. Now, why is this story relevant? Recently, in 2016, the European Union came with a megalithic endeavour known as the “General Data Protection Regulation” (GDPR). The great thing about it is that it brings an individual consumer at par in dealing with multinational corporations, thus making sure that information privacy, the personal data of an individual consumer, is not used by such e-commerce giants for data and behavioral manipulation of the consumer.

So, on a visit to any Western e-commerce websites, one will have to spend a lot of time reading the privacy policy, which on an average lengths about 18 to 19 pages as these Western corporations have to deal with stringent rules of the GDPR. At the same time, the privacy policy of any Indian e-commerce website averages the length of two to three pages, which is also often neglected by consumers.

Contrast the absence of sound data protection laws in India. Due to the lack of this, social media and e-commerce websites do not follow any stringent rules. They, thus, enjoy an upper hand in bargaining with a feeble consumer, who is ready to share all of his/her personal information just to avail a handful of amenities from the website. The moment one clicks upon the “I Agree” button, the process of consumer profiling starts, under which the MNC studies the minutest behaviour of the customer and uses the same information for target advertisement.

There is, therefore, surely a lack of political will. The e-commerce companies are all the more behaving like Gyges, who knew he will never be caught. But that’s the idea of acting just, it is a deontological duty independent of social pressure. At present, India boasts of a draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2018, which is pending in Parliament. The draft Bill itself can best be described as a “bargaining tool”, which tries to shift the bargaining power in favour of the Government instead of the MNCs. The data protection bill is far from a finished product. There is a dire need for a robust data protection framework that gives precedence to transparency. The essential is not just to not compromise on individual rights, but to protect them as well. Consumers must not tolerate companies that amass huge user profiles, data and have the vanishing ability to control our own digital lives.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, National Law University, Odisha)

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