Need policy against data colonisation: Nandan Nilekani

Nandan Nilekani, Infosys co-founder and former UIDAI chairman.
Nandan Nilekani, Infosys co-founder and architect of Aadhaar, has called on the government to create a policy framework to protect the privacy of digital users. Their data should be used for public good and not harvested by global firms to deliver services, he said.

“Time is running out and India needs to take a strategic view on data colonisation, privacy and data dominance and how data is used for public good. It is a policy issue and not a technology issue that needs to be addressed soon,” said Nilekani, delivering the 6th C K Prahalad Memorial Lecture on Tuesday. “India should come out with a data protection policy.”

India has emerged as one of the biggest markets for digital firms such as Facebook, Google and Twitter. These firms offer free products but keep and use data of users. Unlike China, which gave preference to local firms and their dominance in the the local internet market, India has remained an open market for such digital and internet companies. 

Currently, India lacks a data protection and privacy law. The government had said privacy is a concept found only in the developed nations. In a country like India, where there is poverty, it was not necessary to have the fundamental right to privacy, it had said. A nine-judge Supreme Court Bench is hearing a bunch of petitions on the right to privacy. The case has been reserved for judgment.

Last week, the government formed a panel led by former Supreme Court judge B N Srikrishna to study the data protection framework that would also help draft a data protection Bill.

Nilekani called it positive. “They will look at the complete gamut of data security, sovereignty, data empowerment and I am sure they will also look at what should be the actual regulatory environment for that. Europe has a regulator. We should wait for the committee to (respond),” he said.

Nilekani said data would be a “strategic” part of taking the Indian economy forward. He said ideas of using data to empower small businesses or their users or data inversions was not “technical mumbo jumbo” and was linked with further improving the economy.

The former Unique Identification Authority of India chairman, the implementing agency of Aadhaar, said the next cycle of economic growth should come from small businesses with nearly 8 million businesses coming under the goods and services tax (GST) and availability of data.

“My view is that the next cycle of growth will come from growth of small businesses. Small business growth will come from these companies getting credit and they will get credit because there is data about their performance. Data is such a strategic part of taking the economy forward,” Nilekani said. 

So far, small businesses in India have struggled to get loans from banks as there was lack of data about their business performance. Nilekani said the government’s strategy to collect data from such small firms was to make them part of the formal economy. 

“Now as companies become data-rich, as the regional footprints become available through GST, the small businesses, nearly 8 million under GST, can start getting loans. When they start getting loans they can grow, and when they grow they can create jobs. So I think what we talk about data inversions, it is not some technical mumbo jumbo. It is actually creating a cycle of investment and growth for India’s small businesses,” Nilekani said.

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