Abolishing India’s ‘Data Zamindari’ – 🇮🇳’s Proposed Non-Personal Data Authority

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PS: I write a weekly post on India Internet, subscribe here👇, previous essays here


Every time, we Indians, the 500 million internet-addicted people, fire up our phones to use ‘free apps’ for bombarding contacts with sometimes unverified clickbait WhatsApp messages, Google search our illness symptoms before visiting the doctor, watch trailers on YouTube, thoko a like on Facebook, appreciate someone’s self-appreciation on LinkedIn, retweet on Twitter, check our bank balances, make a payment via mobile, place an order on Amazon, book a hotel or a train ticket and get entertained via the dozens of video and music streaming apps. We Indians are relentlessly tilling and creating data.

Add to this our occasional use of digital government services like Adhaar, Digi locker, now add the commercial broadband usage in India to power up our goods and services industry.

2 million petabytes a year is India’s collective digital exhaust, the world’s largest producer of data. See below, how BIG one petabyte is, now imagine 2 million petabytes.

Data Tillers and Digitals Zamindaars

The British laid a Zamindari system, where the tiller of the land was not the owner, and instead paid a “Lagaan” or rent to the British appointed Zamindars, this practice was abolished in the 1950s when the tiller of the land, became the owner of the land.

Now flip this to 2020, 

We the people, the 500 million internet addicts are the owners of this data which we have relentlessly tilled, tapping our phones, on an average 150 times a day, periodically reminded by the Digital Zamindars to check the ‘red’ coloured notifications.

The hoarders of this data are the digital Zamindars who offer their ‘free products’ providing us with snazzy mobile operating systems, search, and social media products that capture the majority of India’s 2 million petabytes of annual digital exhaust.

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These over-grown technology monopolies are large and powerful, they enjoy enormous network effects, where more the Indians use their services, the power of their network grows, unchecked, unfettered.

Data is the lynchpin.

This data hoarding has created a total imbalance between the Digital Zamindars and we the natives. None of us natives can dream of harnessing our own data, locked and under “kabza” or illegal possession, reminiscent of Dibakar Banerjee’s legendary character Khosla in (Khosla ka Ghoska), by these Khoslaesuqe technology monopolists.

Adhaar, Digi Locker……& now the Non-Personal Data (NPD) Authority

Ignoring the hand waving arguments of pseudo-privacy-guardians-warriors and intellectuals, made possible by a bunch of patriot doers, information technology leaders, and architects, India has been at the forefront of the humungous Mt. Everest sized technology innovations, the world-first digital initiatives, the brilliantly executed Adhaar, Digital Locker and UPI have all leapfrogged India from analog to digital. Now India wants to do it again.

MEITY, India’s dynamic and execution-oriented information technology Ministry is aiming to harness for India’s economic and social good, our ever-growing, Pacific ocean-sized, 2 petabytes of annual digital exhaust.

Former Infosys CEO Kris Gopalkrishnan is spearheading India’s effort to democratize our data. He heads the MEITY formed Committee of Experts on Non-Personal Data (NPD) Governance Framework, which recently submitted its brilliant report (recommended weekend reading) to the government. Essentially India could possibly, in the near future, establish a Non-Personal Data Authority, which will build an ecosystem of data principal (We, the people), data custodian, data trust, and data trustees, for user-consented, market-driven, non-personal data sharing in India. MEITY is seeking public comments on the draft recommendations, submit them here.

Non-technical summary: Any one, individual or institution would be able to access, for a fair, ‘our’ data hoarded with Google, Facebook, Youtube, Amazon and others and can put it for economic or social use, maybe to start a business or launch a new commercial product or a platform for community use. The possibilities are infinite.

Unlocking the potential of our digital exhaust

The NPD framework envisages an ecosystem of multiple participants, such as the data principal (We, the people), data custodian, data trust, and data trustees.

Essentially the NPD Authority will play two roles, 1) an enabling role: ensuring that data is shared for the sovereign, social welfare, economic welfare and regulatory and competition purposes and thus spurring innovation in the country and, 2) an enforcing role: ensuring all stakeholders follow the rules and regulations laid, provide data appropriately when data requests are made, undertaking ex-ante evaluations of the risk of re-identification of anonymized personal data, and so on.

NPD Authority will ensure: (a) provision of certainty for existing businesses; (b) creation incentives for new businesses; and (c) release of enormous untapped social and public value from data.

Our Digital Exhaust: Our Future

The NPD committee’s suggested framework will create certainty and incentives for innovation, ensure ‘our’ community data is available for social/public/economic value creation, encourage start-ups in India, while addressing all privacy concerns, including from re-identification of anonymized personal data, at the same time, preventing collective harms arising from the processing of Non-Personal Data, and to importantly examine the concept of collective privacy.

Once, we the Indians, have access to our digital exhaust, currently hoarded by the digital monopolies, there are boundless possibilities, some examples:

  • Start a new search engine that does not abuse its dominant position.

  • Build an e-commerce company that connects India’s farmers with city dwellers.

  • Build a public health technology platform

  • Leverage the data for disaster relief management

This is perhaps the most ambitious initiative taken by India in recent years, the impact of which will be felt for decades and generations to come.

PS: In case you missed reading my previously published essays, simultaneously posted in BusinessWorld(BW) and Rediff (R)

  1. The India-China App Warfare (BW)

  2. Credibility As A Service (BW)

  3. The USD 30 Billion Sale-&-Leaseback of India’s Internet Economy 🔥 (BW) (R)

  4. Securing India’s Internet Economy 🔥 (R)

  5. 2 Koh-i-Noor’s, Different Era’s, Same Story 🔥

  6. The Tata Nano moment for India’s Neo Banks🔥(BW)

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Vibhu Arya

Vibhu Arya

Vibhu has previously worked in India, Middle East, South East Asia, and China across banking, e-commerce, fintech, varied payment types, remittances, and blockchain.
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