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The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), recently released a draft data accessibility policy. The policy is criticised for prioritising commercial interests over privacy


GS-II: Government Policies & Interventions, GS-III: Cyber Security, IT & Computers

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. The Draft Data Accessibility Policy
  2. Criticisms-Licensing Citizen data
  3. Criticisms- Open Data
  4. Criticisms-Absence of a legal Framework
  5. Way Forward

The Draft Data Accessibility Policy:

  • The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MEITY), released  the draft data accessibility policy titled “Draft India Data Accessibility & Use Policy 2022”.
  • Aim: It aims to “radically transform India’s ability to harness public sector data”.
  • Objective: It would govern, “all data and information created/generated/collected/archived by the Government of India”
  • The State Governments will also be free to adopt the provisions of the policy.
  • This purpose of the data will be for government-to-government sharing and use this high value datasets for valuation and licensing.

Criticisms-Licensing Citizen data:

  • In recent years, there has been an expansion in the nature and scope of  private data of citizens. For example, there was voluntary linking of people’s Aadhaar to their bank accounts and mobile connections.
  • However today, the digital sweep is all pervasive. For every area of its citizens life, the government now has a database filled with their personal data. 
    • Agristack: For Agriculture
    • e-SHRAM portal: For unorganised labourers
    • Aarogya Setu  and ABHA (Ayushman Bharat Digital Health Mission): For Health
    • NDEAR (National Digital Education Architecture): For school children and teachers  and so on.
  • The stated purpose for collection has been improving service delivery, planning and checking leakages.
  • However this has been criticised by privacy and welfare activists , but the government justifies this as serving public purposes.

What changes does the draft data accessibility policy bring in?

  • Public data is now being viewed as a prized asset of the Union government that should be freely shared, enriched, valued and licensed to the private sector.
  • Commercial interests: It can prompt the government to collect granular personal details through greater capture and increased retention periods.
  • Distortion of aims: Tying government policy determinations with a fiscal potential may also lead to distortion of the aims of data collection— the welfare of farmers, healthcare, unorganised labourers or even schoolchildren.
  • The Policy does not clarify on obtaining consent from the citizens.
  • Over time, the original objectives for which databases are built will get diluted in favour of commercial interests.
  • Past experience: The Ministry of Road, Transport and Highways  recalled a bulk sharing policy for licensing vehicular and driver licence data worrying about the social risks such as arson and communal violence the policy can cause.

Criticisms- Open Data:

  • There are concerns raised from the disingenuous phrasing of “making data open by default”.
  • Benefits of open data:
    • The World Bank notes that one of the first benefits of open data is that it supports “public oversight of governments and helps reduce corruption by enabling greater transparency”.
    • These principles were recognised in past policy pronouncements of the government. Specifically, the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy, 2012 and the implementation guidelines formulated in 2017 refer to the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The draft data accessibility policy and Open data:

  • The phrase “open data” in the draft policy, does not include its values and objectives .
  • Of the 13 objectives listed, only one is relevant to transparency and is limited to a single sentence.
  • It mainly focuses on commercial interests.

Criticisms-Absence of a legal Framework:

  • The final area for reconsideration is a larger trend of policy-based administration detached from our constitutional framework.
  • The present policy, as many others, is untethered to any legislative basis and contains no proposals for the creation of a legal framework.
  • As per the Supreme Court’s Puttaswamy judgment on the fundamental right to privacy, the first ingredient to satisfy constitutionality is the existence of a legal, more often a legislative, basis.
  • When there is no law, there is absence of defined limits to data sharing that are enforceable and contain remedies.
  • This blocks independent assessment by a body for data protection.

Way Forward:

  • The risks as discussed above will become a reality without an independent regulatory body or penalties.
  • Parliamentary enactments: It can help bring accountability through deliberation that furthers foresight.
    • It also contains financial memorandums – given that public money would be spent to enrich datasets of public data.
  • Role of Rajya Sabha: Since the policy contemplates sharing data between databases of the central and state governments as well as through central funded schemes, it may also be prudent to deliberate further in the Rajya Sabha.
    • Federalism becomes a relevant issue given that such data, when it is generated, processed and enriched by state governments to comply with interoperability standards, will lead to revenue generation for itself.

-Source: The Indian Express

December 2023