The realm of the internet has become an information powerhouse and data has become the new endowment of resources that governments and corporate entities are eager to tap into. The transformation in the digital environment and the emergence of information-intensive services has made data a necessary raw material for most undertakings.
Reports suggest that every minute Instagram is flooded with 277,000 stories, Google has 4.4 million searches and Uber has over 9700 rides in 2019. Today, data is an asset to various businesses and holds importance while making investments, mergers, and acquisitions, and/ or direct monetization.
While the discussion on ‘personal data’ has been revolving around privacy and security concerns, non-personal data is being eyed as an economic opportunity to augment public or private interest which must not be squandered. Considering the value proposition attributed to non-personal data, the legal aspect was sought to be dealt separately from ‘personal data’ which would be governed by the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 that is in the brink of finalization.
Consequently, an Expert Committee (“Committee“) was constituted by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY“) to study various issues relating to non-personal data. The Committee submitted its Report on Non-personal Data Governance Framework for comments from stakeholders in July 2020.
The report highlighted that data regulation is essential to utilize the maximum potential in data by realizing its economic, social, and public value. The need to regulate data stems from the imbalances in bargaining power between the companies that lead to the creation of data monopolies. Moreover, the privacy concerns revolving around the dilution of shared data must be tackled.
Non-Personal Data (“NPD“) is the data that cannot be identified with a particular individual, for example, weather forecast, traffic details, geospatial information, production processes, anonymized personal data, etc.
- Committee’s Proposal to Non-Personal Data Regulation
The NPD Governance Framework outlines norms for collection of data and data sharing by entities. The salient features of the proposed framework are:
- The NPD framework provides key roles for all the participants such as Data Principal, Data Custodian, Data Trustees and Data Trusts.
- Classification of NPD: Non-personal Data is further classified into Public NPD, Community NPD and Private NPD. Public NPD is NPD that is collected or generated by the government or by the agency of the government and includes data collected or generated in the course of execution of all publicly funded works (e.g. public health information, vehicle registration, etc.) excluding the one that is explicitly declared as confidential under the law. Community NPD is data about inanimate or animate phenomenon about a particular community of natural persons (e.g. data collected by e-commerce platforms or by telecom). Private NPD is NPD collected or produced by non-governmental entities or persons.
- Ownership of non-personal data: In cases wherein, non-personal data is derived from personal data of an individual, the data principal for personal data will be the data principal for the NPD too. Further, the rights over the community NPD collected in India will vest in the trustee of such a community.
- Sensitivity of NPD: The Committee has also defined a new concept of ‘sensitivity of NPD’, as NPD can also be sensitive from the perspective of: a) national security or strategic interests; b) sensitive or confidential information relating to businesses; and c) anonymized data, that bears a risk of re-identification.
- Data Businesses and data disclosures: There is also the creation of a new horizontal classification called ‘Data Business’ which is when any existing business collects data beyond a threshold level. Such Data Businesses have to get themselves registered and furnish information on what they do/ collect, their purpose, and the nature of data stored. However, registration of Data Businesses collecting data below the threshold is not mandatory.
- Non-Personal Data Regulatory Authority: NPD Regulatory Authority shall ensure that data is shared for sovereign, social and economic welfare, for regulatory and competition purposes, and also that all stakeholders adhere to the rules and data sharing requirements.
- Unanswered Questions: Shortcomings of the proposed Framework:
Attempting to govern the NPD is a commendable effort, however, it seems that there is a slew of questions that are left unanswered. The following are the issues relating to the proposed framework:
- The foremost need to govern NPD as highlighted by the Committee is the imbalance in the digital ecosystem. However, neither the sources of these imbalances have been identified or analysed nor has it been clarified how the proposed regulations resolve these inequities.
- Ambiguous classification of NPD: The various types of NPD have a potential overlap, but then again, clearly demarcating a line between the three types would be a difficult task. Also, one of the three types of NPD is Community NPD, however, there is no clarification as to how the ‘community’ would be determined. The definition of ‘community’ is wide, under the same even religious groups, residents of the same locality or same educational background would be a valid community, which may have conflicting interests over data shared with the government. Further, without any guiding principles, companies will be forced to make legally binding decisions on what they deem to be a valid community, the scope of data to be shared and for the resolution of competing claims, which is problematic at various levels. Moreover, on a particular dataset, there could be various interests, and in such cases, who would be entrusted with the data remains ambiguous.
- Anonymization of Personal Data to Non-Personal Data: The process of converting personal data into Non-Personal Data by removing certain identifiers or credentials is termed as ‘anonymization’. Anonymization would undoubtedly convert a set of personal data into non-personal data but, such data runs the risks of re-identification. Further, although anonymization is essential, high anonymization could render the data over-generalized and futile.
- Reactions of Stakeholders to the sharing of data: Mandatory data sharing is highly criticized by stakeholders, as it undermines the investments put in business and the value of intellectual property information the competitors would suffer. This ‘forced data sharing’ is counterproductive and would have a rather negative effect on foreign trade and investments. NPD can constitute trade secrets, that may be protected by IP laws, sharing this data raises concerns around the right to carry business and India’s obligation under international trade law. The purposes for data sharing under the framework are ‘sovereign’, ‘core public interest’, and ‘economic’ purposes which essentially covers all the data held by companies, and must be narrowed down.
- Lack of Clarity on who really are trustees of Data: There is ambiguity regarding who will be a data trustee. Whether private, for-profit organizations or private entities within the government could be data trustees is not apparent. Also, the position regarding a data trustee’s independence and conflict of interest remains murky. It is essential that the roles and functions of these bodies are comprehensively defined.
- User-Consent: NPD Framework also proposes that before the anonymization of data the consent of the user must be taken. It remains particularly unclear as to how would the consent be taken from them. Further, a company needs to invest in resources and obtain user consent, and sharing data may provide no incentive to such companies and would drown them into losses.
- Over-Regulation by Non-Personal Data Authority: Creating altogether a new authority for NPD would lead to potential regulatory overlap given Data Protection Authority addresses and enforces privacy concerns and the Competition Commission of India looks over consumer welfare.
This effort of the Ministry to set up a Committee to study the NPD which may subsequently lead to a legislation governing the NPD in India is praiseworthy, however, a lot of issues need reconsideration. Stakeholders have expressed anguish over the mandatory sharing of data and data disclosures as it conveniently overlooks the humungous investments put in by the companies. Further, the roles and functions of various entities under the framework are not clearly defined. The NPDA established under the framework may have functional overlaps with the CCI and the Data Protection Authority.
Moreover, there is ambiguity regarding Community NPD and user consent. There is no doubt that the ever-evolving nature of information technology is demanding as far as regulatory mechanism is concerned therefore the road ahead is arduous. Hopefully, the concerns raised are adequately addressed by the Committee and constructively resolved in favour of all the stakeholders.
Photo by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash
This effort of the Ministry to set up a Committee to study the NPD which may subsequently lead to legislation governing the NPD in India is praiseworthy, however, a lot of issues need reconsideration. Stakeholders have expressed anguish over the mandatory sharing of data and data disclosures as it outrightly overlooks the humungous investments put in by the companies.