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India proposes new rules to access its citizens' data

Manish Singh
An Indian onlooker checks his mobile phone while watching share prices on a digital brodcast on the facade of the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) during intraday trade in Mumbai on November 24, 2016. The US dollar hit a record high against the Indian rupee November 24 as the greenback surges on expectations of a rate hike next month following Donald Trump's shock presidential election victory. The US currency bought 68.8625 rupees during early afternoon forex trading, surpassing the previous high of 68.8450 recorded in August 2013. / AFP / INDRANIL MUKHERJEE (Photo credit should read INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP via Getty Images)

India has proposed groundbreaking rules, akin to Europe's GDPR, that would require technology companies to garner consent from citizens before collecting and processing their personal data.

But at the same time, the new rules also state that companies would have to hand over "non-personal" data of their users to the government, and New Delhi would also hold the power to collect any data of its citizens without consent to serve sovereignty and larger public interest.

The new rules, proposed in nation's first major data protection law dubbed “Personal Data Protection Bill 2019,” a copy of which leaked on Tuesday, would permit New Delhi to “exempt any agency of government from application of Act in the interest of sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order.”

If the bill passes -- and it is expected to be discussed in the Parliament in the coming weeks -- select controversial laws drafted more than a decade ago would remain unchanged. The bill might also change how global technology companies that have invested billions of dollars in India, thanks in part to the lax laws, see the nation of more than 600 million internet users.

Another proposed rule in the bill seeks to grant New Delhi the power to ask any "data fiduciary or data processor" to hand over "anonymized non-personal data" for the purpose of better governance, and inform its policies and deliver services to citizens.

New Delhi’s new bill -- which was passed by the Union Cabinet last week, but has yet to be formally shared with the public -- could create new challenges for Google, Facebook, Twitter, ByteDance's TikTok and other companies that are already facing some regulatory heat in the nation.

India conceptualized this bill two years ago, and in the years since, it has undergone significant changes. An earlier draft of the bill that was formally made public last year stated that the Indian government must not have the ability to collect or process personal data of its citizens, unless a lawful procedure was followed.

Ambiguity over who the Indian government considers an "intermediary" or a "social media" platform, or a "social media intermediary," are yet to be fully resolved, however. In the latest version, the bill appears to not include payment services, internet service providers, search engines, online encyclopedias, email services and online storage services as "social media intermediaries."

One of the proposed rules, which is directly aimed at Facebook, Twitter and any other social media company that enables “interaction between two or more users,” requires them to give their users an option to verify their identity and then publicly have such status displayed on their profile -- similar to the blue tick that Facebook and Twitter reserve for celebrities and other accounts of public interest.

Last week news outlet Reuters reported portions of the bill, citing unnamed sources. The report claimed that India was proposing the voluntary identity-verification requirement to curb the spread of false information.

As social media companies grapple with the spread of false information, which has resulted in at least 30 deaths in India, the Narendra Modi-led government, which itself is a big consumer of social media platforms, has sought to take measures to address several issues.

Over the last two years, the Indian government has asked WhatsApp, which has amassed more than 400 million users in India, to “bring traceability” to its platform in a move that would allow the authority to identify the people who are spreading the information.

WhatsApp has insisted that any such move would require breaking encryption, which would compromise the privacy and security of more than a billion people globally.

The bill has not specifically cited government’s desires to contain false information for this proposal, however. Instead, the bill insists that this would bring more “transparency and accountability.”

Some critics have expressed concerns over the proposed rules. Udbhav Tiwari, a public policy advisor at Mozilla, said New Delhi's bill would "represent new, significant threats to Indians' privacy. If Indians are to be truly protected, it is urgent that the Parliament reviews and addresses these dangerous provisions before they become law.”

Indian news site MediaNama has outlined several more changes in this Twitter thread.