After being in the works for a few years, the Personal Data Protection Bill has been scrapped during the Monsoon session of Parliament. The genesis of the bill goes back to 2017 when the Supreme Court declared that the Right to Privacy is a Fundamental Right and protected as an essential part of the Right to Life and Personal Liberty under Article 21 of the Constitution.
Union Electronics and Information Technology Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw withdrew the bill, stating that a comprehensive legal framework for the digital ecosystem is being worked upon. He announced that a new bill that fits the framework will be presented soon.
The importance of creating and enforcing a law that protects the data and privacy of citizens cannot be stressed enough, considering the increasing threats of misusing or manipulating one’s personal data by non-state and state actors both.
Famous British mathematician, Clive Humby coined the phrase “data is the new oil” in the 21st century, observing the exponential industrial value of data and the widespread increase of user-generated data on a global scale.
In India, there has been an explosion of such user generated data with the coming of affordable Internet and availability of cheap mobile phones in the last few years.
Experts have now predicted that with 5G connectivity poised to be rolled out, there will be another data explosion in India when it comes. Therefore, it is necessary that the authorities take measures and introduce laws to protect the personal data of the users.
A data protection law will regulate how the Big Tech (Google, Amazon, Meta, Apple and Microsoft) and other data fiduciaries store, transfer or even disclose users’ personal data. Since data has a price value, the law should guard personal data from being sold off to any third-party advertising companies without the consent of the users who are the rightful owners of their personal data.
It should also protect the users from fraudulent activities online such as hacking, identity theft, phishing, etc. as well. But it comes with a cost. Before the Personal Data Protection Bill was withdrawn, it came under criticism from NGOs, civil bodies and the Opposition which stated that the Bill gave a lot of exemptions to government agencies on how they will treat the personal data and privacy of the users. This goes against the fundamental privacy rights, and the bill had been termed Orwellian as it allegedly favours the government.
In May 2021, popular messaging app WhatsApp sued the Indian Government in the Delhi High Court against the Information Technology Rules, 2021 which require social media platforms to trace the origin of particular messages sent by a user. WhatsApp alleged the IT Rules of violating the people’s Right to Privacy enshrined in the Constitution.
Micro-blogging site Twitter has also been locking horns with the Indian Government this year as it took matters to the High Court when the government issued orders to take down content from its platform. As per reports, Twitter was asked to block accounts and take down tweets which were supportive of the farmers’ protest and those who were critical of the government’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Union minister Vaishnaw charged Twitter of not abiding by India’s rules and the law of the land while the latter accused the Indian Government of abusing its powers.
It is likely that the new version of the data protection bill continues to favour the government for the sake of National Security. If this happens to be the case, then it should be a cause of concern for the citizens from the states which fall under the ‘disturbed area’ zones and afflicted with militancy such as Manipur.
Instead of protecting the citizens’ Right to Privacy, such a bill might empower the state agencies to carry out unbridled surveillance.
In a worst case scenario, private data or messages of journalists, activists, dissenters and even government employees could very well be traced and their movements tracked, and all of this could be carried out within legal provisions in the name of National Security.
Concerning the increase in surveillance, we have had a small taste of this recently, though in a different context, when government employees were ordered to leave WhatsApp groups which are “communal” in nature.
Experts have pointed out that citizens' privacy and national security have to be kept in balance. The data protection bill also envisages a Data Protection Authority (DPA) which is going to be responsible for protection and regulation of data. It is highly crucial that this body remains independent and free from any political interference. Its functioning should not be a reminder of how “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” which is a situation depicted in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. But it remains to be seen how everything rolls out.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)