As I begin writing this piece, an oft-repeated quote of the Dalai Lama comes to mind: “Our ancient experience confirms at every point that everything is linked together, everything is inseparable.”
What prompted this thought? By just watching all the "dizzying" developments in India in the context of data, technology and "Digital India" juxtaposed against developments worldwide by data protection and other regulators and game-changing judgments being handed out by courts. At one level, it appears to be a chaotic cacophony. Yet, at another level, there is a semblance of all of it beginning to "come together" … reminding me that it is all indeed linked — whether or not I see the tapestry that is getting woven. Hopefully, the protection of human beings in the midst of all this will remain center-stage.
The Data Protection Bill introduced in December 2021 in the Indian Parliament continues to be hotly discussed and debated. As the second-largest "digital nation" in the world, the debates tend to be around whether the law is appropriate given India’s context, size and what is at stake balanced against global expectations and the impact the law would have on the internet, on the one hand, and trade, on the other. Some issues being discussed include:
- Cross-border data transfers and the controls around it: Would some of the proposed measures lead to excessive bureaucracy? Would the proposed constraints on data transfers outside India lead to other countries taking reactive measures … leading to the start of a fragmentation of the internet?
- Does the government retain excessive powers?
- Is the proposed classification of data (critical data & sensitive data) confining and difficult to implement?
- Has adding non-personal data to the mix compounded problems further?
Meanwhile, on 1 Feb., India’s finance minister, Nirmala Seetharaman, presented the government’s annual budget for 2022-23 to the Indian Parliament. An annual exercise, the budget announces various plans, outlays and schemes of the government for the year ahead.
Not unexpectedly, the minister announced a slew of measures to further India’s digital growth. Some of these include:
- Telecom infrastructure: Specific measures around 5G and increased fiber penetration in rural areas have been announced. This means the current 600 million-plus smartphone users plus 300 million-plus feature phone users will increase further, given the population of India is 1.3 billion.
- Digital payments: Focus on strengthening and increasing the reach of digital payments continues — both on the tech front as well as supporting on-the-ground infrastructure as enablers.
- Digital health care: The planned National Digital Health Ecosystem will be rolled out, comprising digital registries of health providers and health facilities, health identity, consent framework, and universal access to health facilities.
- Special support for sunrise sectors — like AI, drones (includes providing financial assistance for farmers to use drones, enabling DrAAS — drones as a service), geospatial systems, semiconductor and its eco-system, space economy, genomics and pharmaceuticals, green energy, and clean mobility systems.
- Open source mobility stack for seamless travel of passengers across geos and modes of transport.
- E-passports with embedded chips.
All of the above indicate the acceleration with which personal data will spew forth — all the more reason for India’s Data Protection Bill to be passed at the earliest so as to provide the necessary guardrails to empower all of the above.
Meanwhile, Big Tech continues to make further inroads into what is one of their most lucrative markets. Google just announced plans to invest $1 billion in Airtel, India’s second largest telco. This comes on the heels of its $4.5 billion investment last year in Jio Platforms, the largest telecom player in India. This was after Jio received $5.7 billion from Facebook. The implications of these developments on data protection and privacy in the region would play out in the coming future.
Into this mix was thrown the news — via an article in The New York Times — about the Indian government purchasing the Pegasus Spyware by the Indian government in 2017, a purchase the government has denied earlier. This has again opened a can of worms around surveillance of citizens.
Privacy … whither art thou?
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