Nandan Nilekani warns of digital colonisation ahead of Aadhaar hearing

Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani
Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani has warned the consolidation of user data on a few digital aggregators could put the country under a new model of colonisation, and argued for a new privacy policy that gives users control over the data.

“Increasing the aggregation of that data in a few concentrated platforms of aggregators is actually quite a big risk; you end up with data monopoly. The problem with data-based approach is that the more data you have and better machine learning you apply, the more customers you get,” Nilekani said at an interaction with D J Patil, the chief data scientist for former US president Barack Obama.

Unlike China, which gave preference to local firms and their dominating the local internet market, India has remained the world’s largest open market for global internet companies. 

US internet firms such as Google and social network Facebook dominate the country’s internet market. Both firms are also investing heavily in building rural India, making their platform the first choice of users to get the network effect — the more users these firms get, the better their platform network gets. These firms offer free services in exchange for data that help them target users with advertisements.

“A big part of public policy all over the world will be how we enforce a policy regime where data are portable, shared and yours. We do not have anything like that in India. So, we can think of a fresh policy that would be leapfrogging,” said Nilekani, the architect of Aadhaar, the country’s unique identity programme. “I am deeply concerned that data are going to create a new set of monopolists; it is going to create a whole new model of colonisation.”

Nilekani’s comments comes ahead of a crucial hearing by a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday, which will answer concerns on whether privacy in India is a fundamental human right and part of the basic structure of the Constitution. The court will hear a series of petitions that have argued that the Aadhaar programme, which mandates individuals share biometric details, is a violation of the citizen’s right to privacy.

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