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Taking national data seriously

In a digital economy, data is the central resource. The Prime Minister recently compared data to property at the advent of the industrial era. Data is being considered as a nation’s new wealth. How data will be employed fruitfully, and its value captured, will decide a nation’s rank in the emerging new global geo-economic and geo-political hierarchies. The global digital or artificial intelligence (AI) economy is currently a two-horse race between the U.S. and China. It is feared that all other countries, including the European Union (EU) and major developing countries such as India, will have to become fully digitally dependent on one of these two digital superpowers. This will considerably compromise their economic and political independence, something referred to as digital colonisation.

The shift to digital power, and its concentration, is very evident. Seven of the top eight companies by market cap globally today are data-based corporations. A decade back, this list was dominated by industrial and oil giants. Almost all top digital corporations in the world are U.S. or Chinese.

Importance of data sharing

All credible efforts to escape such a dismal situation, like in the French and the U.K.’s AI strategies, numerous EU documents, and India’s NITI Aayog’s AI strategy, focus on one central issue — more data-sharing within the country, and better access to data for domestic businesses. But how is this to be actually achieved when a few global digital corporations such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Uber, continually vacuum out India’s and Indians’ data, and then by default treat it as their private property, including freely sending it abroad? French AI strategy calls for an aggressive data policy, and control on data outflows. NITI Aayog’s AI strategy has sought mandated sharing of data for social purposes.

Appropriate data policies must ensure that the required data is actually available to Indian digital businesses. After all, most of this data in the first place is collected from Indian communities, artefacts and natural phenomenon, and is about them. Global corporations like to consider data as a freely shareable open resource till the data is out there, with the people, communities, outside ‘things’, etc. But the moment they collect the data, it seems to become their de facto private property and they refuse to share it, even for important public interest purposes.

This lawless logjam can only be broken by asserting a community’s legal right over data that is derived from, and is about, the community concerned, or about ‘things’ that belong to it. This is the concept of community data inscribed in India’s draft e-commerce policy.

Community data

To understand data’s value, and why a community should own data about itself, it helps to see data as the basis of detailed and deep intelligence about a community. We are careful in parting with personal data because it provides deep intelligence about us which can be used to manipulate us. Similarly, data about a group of people, even if anonymised, provides very wide and granular intelligence about that group or community. The very basis of a digital economy is to employ such data-based intelligence to reorganise and coordinate different sectors — think Uber in the transport sector and Amazon in consumer goods. But this data-based community intelligence can equally be used to manipulate or cause harm to the community, if in the hands of an untrusted or exploitative party. Such data-based harm could be economic — beginning with unfair sharing of the gains of digital efficiency, but also social, political security-related and military.

It is for this reason that communities, including a national community, should effectively control and regulate intelligence about them. This requires effective community control over its data that produces such intelligence. A complex and gradual process of classification of various kinds of data, and developing governance frameworks around them, is required.

A great amount of data would indeed be fully private to the corporation concerned. Public agencies and regulators may not be too bothered about how such private data is used, where it is moved to, etc. But a big part of data that comes into play in a digital economy is community data, which has to be treated carefully. In less important areas or sectors it may need no or very little regulation, but in other important areas, the community data concerned may require close regulation. This could be about accessing such data for social purposes, ensuring that important public interest is met in various uses of data, and to make data available to domestic businesses, to stimulate competition and for India’s digital industrialisation.

All this requires India to preserve its data policy space. We have not even begun dealing with the very complex data policy issues, including data classification, data ownership rights, data sharing, data trusts, and so on. This is a task that India should urgently embark upon, in full earnest. There is no time to lose as global advantages and vulnerabilities in terms of a digital economy are fast being entrenched. This is very similar to how the Industrial Revolution triggered fundamental changes and new global power configurations in the 19th century.

Preserving data policy space

News reports indicate that at the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership trade negotiations, being held with Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and New Zealand, India may accept free data flow clauses with some public policy exceptions.

The history of trade agreements clearly show that such public policy exceptions almost never work, especially for developing countries. It needs to be understood that suitable data controls and policies are not to be exceptions but the mainstream of a digital economy and society.

In signing on a free flow of data regime, however cleverly worded, India will largely end up ceding most of its data policy space, and data sovereignty. And with it, it will give up any chances for effectively using Indian data for India’s development, and for digital industrialisation to become a top digital power. It will effectively be laying the path for permanent digital dependency, with India’s data flowing freely to data intelligence centres in the U.S., and now some in China. From these global centres, a few global “intelligence corporations” will digitally, and intelligent-ally, control and run the entire world.

With countries yet hardly clear about appropriate data policies, and the data-related requirements for digital industrialisation, it is not clear what the hurry is to sign global free flow of data agreements. The digital economy seems to be growing and flourishing very well even without such regimes.

Disengaging from signing binding agreements on uninhibited data flows across borders does not mean that a country would simply localise all data. Some kinds of data may indeed need to be localised, while others should freely flow globally. It just means that a country retains complete data policy space, and the means to shape its digital industrialisation, and thus its digital future. Our understanding in these areas is just now beginning to take shape. It will be extremely unwise to foreclose our options even before we discover and decide the right data and digital polices and path for India.

Parminder Jeet Singh is with IT for Change. E-mail: [email protected]

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