Stricter laws for data protection will not necessarily lead to stifling of the Internet economy, and people need to be at the centre of any data protection law, a panel at The Indian Express Thinc on Thursday said. The panel consisted of legal researcher Usha Ramanathan, journalist Nikhil Pahwa, Deputy Director General at the Department of Telecommunications in the Union Ministry of Communications G N Nath, and public policy expert Malavika Raghavan.
The topic of the discussion was Data Protection and Privacy: Where Are We in India and What’s the Future. Though the discussion was about the wider scope of data protection, Aadhaar and related issues of privacy inevitably became the primary focus. Ramanathan at the start of the discussion mentioned that it was while arguing over the challenge to Aadhaar in the Supreme Court that the Union government stated that Indians did not have a fundamental right to privacy, which “told us what the intention” with Aadhaar was. If the data protection framework protects the Unique Identification Authority of India, Ramanathan added on the upcoming law on data protection, then it will fail. “Can’t save the UID and have data protection,” she said, adding that India was becoming a surveillance society from a surveillance state. Nath of the Communications Ministry said that there are already domain-specific laws that protect data of consumers, even if the country lacks an overarching data protection legislation. He admitted that mobile applications, which are a large collector of consumer data today, is an unregulated space.
Giving the example of industry-specific data protection rules, he mentioned that in the telecom space the licensing agreement any service provider has to sign includes provisions on how the data will be stored and used. He also emphasised that Aadhaar was just an identity, a number, which carried attributes like the biometric and demographic details.
Pahwa said there is a growing fatalism among people regarding allowing companies and governments to collect data about them. With larger private companies continuously collecting data on people, Pahwa said nations across the world are feeling “insecure” because private internet companies have more data on citizens than governments. Further, he said that people do not have any control on the kind of data being collected about them, or how and when it is being done. Today the government demands privacy for itself while arguing for transparency from the citizens, Pahwa said.
The idea that there cannot be stricter laws for data protection alongside a growing Internet economy was a false binary, Raghavan said. She added that both the government and private companies were just gathering data because the cost of data storage was very less and it led to irrelevant data being collected. Ramanathan stressed the idea that as the government prepares a new data protection law it must keep people in mind. The balance between innovation and privacy must lean towards people’s rights, and not the industry, she said. “The balance cannot be what will suit the industry,” she said, added that it must be within the framework of the Indian Constitution respecting people’s rights. “Data protection is not about protecting data, it is about protecting the people.” The discussion was moderated by Assistant Editor, The Indian Express, Shruti.