Even as the personal data protection Bill is yet to be finalised and passed by the Parliament, the government has opened another front regarding non-personal or community data, wherein it has formed a committee under the chairmanship of Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan to study various issues regarding the matter and give suggestions for regulating such data.
However, some privacy advocates fear the government is trying to dilute protections suggested under the data protection Bill. But the government on its part feels there is a need to recognise the economic dimension of community data, which includes aggregated data, derived data, anonymous data, e-commerce data, artificial intelligence training data, etc. Even the BN Srikrishna-led panel, which had given its recommendations on personal data protection in July last year, had suggested that the government should consider a suitable law regarding community data.
An official in the ministry of electronics and IT (Meity) told Financial Express that the government is of a firm view that community data can be used for various things, including policy making, governance, and public service delivery in many areas and such kind of data should be shared. “The companies collecting such data should give it to others for their use as the data does not belong to the first collector and there should be no barrier to entry in the digital world,” the official added.
The eight-member committee is expected to submit its report as expeditiously as possible. The move by the government is also an attempt to stop monopolising of data by big US and Chinese firms, as they control a majority of digital platforms across the globe. This is going to have huge implications for companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, etc, which have a big user base in India, analysts said. Currently there are no rules that mandate these companies to share data with others. However, some companies on their own do sell the data to third parties for a fee.
The thinking in the ministry of electronics and IT (Meity) coincides with the release of a digital economy report by the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), which examines the scope for value creation in the digital economy by developing countries. As per an official in Meity, just because some company came in early and took all the data, does not mean that the company owns the data. “The company just observed and made a data bank, but the data is about the customer. The community or people are the owners of the data, who have given consent to the company for its use,” the official said. As per Meity, the critical difference between community and other large-scale data collection lies in the degree of involvement of the larger community in building the body of data. It challenges the notion of individual control over personal data as individuals may not be aware of what their data can disclose when aggregated with billions of other data points.
However, some privacy advocates are not enthused about the government’s move. “The formation of the committee comes at a time of grave concern on the final text, form and actual legislative introduction of the data protection law, which India today lacks. There is a reasonable fear that the framing of ‘community data’ will dilute protections of personal data as recommended by the draft Bill and the recommendations of the Justice Srikrishna committee, which already had very wide exemptions,” said Apar Gupta, a lawyer and executive director of the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF). Also, the kind of approach India is taking regarding community data is not likely to find favour with US and China, but Europe is taking a stance similar to India. “Europe is thinking on the same lines like us and if 10 other countries follow that, it will have impact,” the official added. As per the report by UNCTAD, some global digital platforms have achieved very strong market positions in certain areas.
For instance, Google has some 90% of the market for internet searches, Facebook accounts for two-thirds of the global social media market and is the top social media platform in more than 90% of the world’s economies. Amazon boasts an almost 40% share of the world’s online retail activity and its Amazon Web Services accounts for a similar share of the global cloud infrastructure services market. Similarly, in China, WeChat (owned by Tencent) has more than one billion active users and together with Alipay (Alibaba), its payment solution has captured virtually the entire Chinese market for mobile payments. “As with network effects, more users mean more data and more data mean a stronger ability to outcompete potential rivals and capitalise on first-mover advantages. Thirdly, once a platform begins to gain traction and starts offering different integrated services, the costs to users of switching to an alternative service provider start to increase,” the report added. The Meity official said release of the report has only made their job easy as they are also thinking on the same lines.