Before we take any move towards drafting data laws, it is essential for the Government to have a time-bound discussion on this issue
In the last fortnight, two sets of documents have caught the nation’s attention. One, which bid formal good bye to the “Anglo Saxon” tradition and the other that followed suit, draped in “Bridal Red.” Incidentally, the former was the Economic Survey of India 2019-20 report and the second the Union Budget 2019-20, which was wrapped in a red cloth. What’s interesting between both is that they are “vision mission” documents and guidance, as opposed to concrete “go to market” policy documents. Both as policy as a “work-in-progress” and sticking to the Modi 2.0 Government’s promise of reaching out to the garib, while steering clear from the middle and affluent class. This “socialist right” approach promises a “connected economy”, benefit or “digital Antyodaya” at the bottom of the pyramid using tools that are currently being tested on the ones at the top of the pyramid. Put simply, both documents in one way or the other have advocated for greater citizen data crunching, specifically at the village panchayat level and utilise the derivations for greater good.
So far the above mission/vision looks like a good Instagram picture with right hashtags and filters.
Meanwhile, the data generated by Indians would have moved a few trillion Gigabytes or Petra bytes if one wants and many other policy measures, as envisaged in the Budget document, would have started taking formative baby steps. Add to it, the current shape and form of the Data Privacy Bill. Even after some rounds of deliberations, it is still a mystery, known only to the “administrative Ministry”. In its earlier version, the Bill had several open-ended policy measures and major stakeholders in the data economy had raised reservations or sought clarifications.
The basic premise for most reservations were: Who is the custodian of the citizen’s data? Where do lines of “authority, consent, ownership and breach” begin and “fix accountability?” As a noted economist put it post the Economic Survey, “Mr George Orwell just got the year wrong”, with a camouflaged reference to the author’s dystopian novel themed on Government oversight and outreach in a totalitarian manner. While I am not advocating the above quote to be an accurate analysis, I am worried about the general thinking in the minds of policy-makers. In the race for “digital Antyodaya”, reaching out to the last mile via information highways and dreaming of making billions of data nodes talk to each other, the subject, in this case, “garib” rights, are not being fully acknowledged. The ongoing mindset of treating right to data and ensuing data privacy as an “elitist” concept is biased to its core.
Traditionally, the Government has been a repository of a vast amount of citizen data but most of it sits in silos and more often than not ignored. The Economic Survey talked about inter-linking of these nodes within the larger framework of data privacy. My concern is: We are talking about usurping in some ways “data rights” of those who have just managed to watch a few funny videos on mobile, exchanged few whatsapp jokes or pictures and maybe received a digital payment. They are toddlers on the digital highway and need to be handled carefully, including teaching them their rights and duties. The so-called elite is still to reach the elementary level of learning on data rights and duties.
In such a scenario, usage of data as “public good” and in some ways monetising on this new-found “public resource” is a gunshot in the dark room; to hit the Captor or hundreds of others, who may be a victim to the hostage drama. While the state’s overarching role, as the keeper and repository of all citizen data and, therefore, the right to protect, is somewhat unchallenged. The right of others, who may just happen to be in the room when the hostage drama unfolded, is also sacrosanct. Therefore, this needs to be protected at all costs. The key here is to have “light” back in the room, which in our case will be to bring back the policy in the public consultation space and have detailed time-bound discussion before finalising a law.
(The writer is a policy analyst)