In the information age, data is not just the new oil but also a measure of the vibrancy of democracy in any country. The way the data is leveraged for public good would influence governance outcomes. A government-appointed committee, headed by former Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan, has favoured a separate law to regulate the commercial use of non-personal data. Two years ago, another expert group headed by former Supreme Court judge Justice BN Srikrishna had similarly argued for legislation to regulate the use of personal information by data-mining companies. The principle behind both the findings remains the same: data generated by the public has to be protected and cannot be harvested for free — as is being done at present. While the effort to carve out a law for protecting personal data is still a work in progress — it is pending with Parliament — the Central government is yet to articulate its view on the recommendations of the Gopalakrishnan committee. Together, they provide the legal architecture to protect data privacy of both an individual and society as a collective. While personal data of customers is protected by privacy laws across the world, non-personal data (NPD) remains largely unregulated. A framework for NPD may be far more complex to create than a personal data protection law. A separate legislation and an authority to govern NPD have become imperative because the non-personal data has economic value, which should be leveraged for financial benefit and better governance.
Privately collected digital data could be necessary for policymaking, governance and public service delivery. In August 2017, the telecom regulator sought to unlock the economic value of data gathered by telecom companies. A year later, the government think-tank Niti Aayog suggested that the concentration of data in the hands of a few players was an entry barrier for startups and recommended marketplaces to spur data sharing. The governance of NPD involves a complex set of considerations, distinct from the concerns relevant to personal data regulation. There is a need to create a data-sharing framework so that community data is available for social, public and economic value creation and simultaneously address privacy concerns and prevent collective harms arising from the processing of non-personal data. Sharing non-personal data collected by both government and private organisations with citizens is likely to lead to increased transparency, better quality services, improved efficiencies and more innovation. The shared non-personal data may be useful for entrepreneurs to develop new and innovative services and products from which citizens may benefit. Once the personal data protection law is in place, individual consent will be a precondition for companies to mine the data.
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