India’s opportunity to ensure a strong privacy framework for the next billion

India is home to perhaps the next billion users of the internet. It is already the second largest internet user base, second only to China, and internet use is increasing among India’s population faster than almost anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, despite being the world’s largest democracy, India’s internet users are not protected by any national privacy institution or adequate data protection framework.

But that might change — soon.

India has been having its moment on privacy. From the Snowden revelations, to questions around the Aadhaar Unique ID programme, Cambridge Analytica, and news that prominent mobile-wallet service Paytm is allegedly sharing user data with government offices, the threat to privacy has become real and part of the discourse in India.

India’s parliament has seen many debates on privacy, to the extent that Parliament’s standing committee on finance issued a report urging for the creation of a data protection law and several MPs filed detailed private member bills on privacy and data protection.  On the judicial front, there are a growing number of cases. The first battle on safeguarding the status of privacy as a fundamental right was won, with the Supreme Court of India affirming that each Indian has a fundamental right to privacy under the Constitution of India.

During the hearings in the Supreme Court challenging the Aadhaar scheme last year, the government of India established a committee of experts on data protection under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court Justice Shri B N Srikrishna. This committee released a white paper in November of last year and opened that up for comments until the end of January. Access Now filed a detailed submission to that consultation, building on our list of dos and don’ts from our lawmakers’ guide to approaching data protection. The Srikrishna Committee may reportedly finalise and submit its report to the Ministry of Electronics and IT in early July, and is also expected to recommend a draft bill for the government to consider and introduce in Parliament.

While there have been a lot of conversations around privacy in the past, outcomes have been slow to come in India. That is why civil society is continuing to push forward to achieve the protections necessary to defend these fundamental rights.

Last week, organizers launched the #SaveOurPrivacy project — an Indian advocacy movement founded in support of a model draft law called the Indian Privacy Code, 2018. This draft — drafted by a committee of volunteer lawyers from the digital rights community in India — covers the specific and nuanced issues of privacy, data protection, interception, and surveillance, and builds on seven privacy principles the drafting committee identified as the pillars of the legislative effort.  

This movement aims to push the government in India to finally do something, to make sure that the outcome is one which protects the large base of users in India, and to institute proper mechanisms to protect the fundamental right to privacy in India. In order to achieve this goal, this campaign relies principally on public engagement and discussion to grow awareness on privacy and data protection, gather endorsements, and nudge policy makers to adopt a strong law focused on user rights.

Besides endorsements, the campaign takes a unique approach for gathering comments and feedback. Apart from the mechanisms of sending feedback through emails, the bill provides an annotation process wherein any and all stakeholder can provide line-by-line feedback on the bill text, which would be available for all to see. At Access Now, we laud this effort to ensure effective stakeholder participation by easing the process of providing comments in a transparent manner. We shall be participating in the process of consultation and helping the movement build on the draft text by providing inputs from an international perspective, particularly around learning from comparative experiences with data protection, building effective privacy regulatory institutions, and ensuring that surveillance law respects international human rights legal standards around being necessary and proportionate.

We publicly endorse the #SaveOurPrivacy effort and its principles, and we urge other organisations and experts to engage in the discussion around ensuring a strong privacy law for the next billions users of the internet.