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What should the new Indian government’s digital policy look like?

Soon the election results will be over and it will be back to work for the government. As things stand, India has a lot to achieve in the next five years. From becoming a five-trillion-dollar economy to creating millions of jobs, driving innovation, enhancing investments, and promoting entrepreneurship, a lot is at stake for the next government.

To achieve the scale and nature of such goals, we need a structured and planned approach to policymaking, especially in the technology and digital sectors that have contributed significantly to our GDP.

Here are some suggestions for the new government:

Light touch and transparent regulatory process

The government, especially over the past couple of years, adopted a rather stringent, over-regulatory approach towards the information technology and internet ecosystem. From demanding source code under the e-commerce policy to mandating proactive monitoring in the intermediary liability amendment, trends from recent policy action paint a picture of the government trying to crack a nut with a sledgehammer.

The new government should reinstill faith in the digital ecosystem by deploying proportionate methods to tackle policy challenges. Towards this, the government must adopt a more transparent approach by considering the voices of all stakeholders before making decisions that could have severe consequences.

The scope of any policy must adhere to the issues concerned, and not venture outside its ambit, unlike the draft e-commerce policy which came out in February and covered aspects such as the internet of things, data ownership, and search engines: areas that were matters of different policies and laws.

It should also be clear in its approach and provide enough time for organisations to comply with changes in regulations, something which the Reserve Bank of India fell short of with its April 2018 localisation notification.

Moreover, policy-making should be driven by encouraging and incentivising players alike, rather than giving them the stick, where regulation should be based on the risk, and not the entity.

Level playing field

The new government must walk the tightrope of ensuring a level playing field while providing enough opportunities for Indian companies to grow in the ecosystem. Policies should not be such that they advantage one set of players to the detriment of others.

A level playing field is essential for fostering efficient competition amid all players in the sector.

Promotion of domestic alternatives to the cloud, email facilities and card payment systems (RuPay) will impact consumer choice and user experience, as well as affordable storage for startups. It could also undermine foreign investment and economic growth.

Additionally, the government should allow for competitive products in the digital payments and fintech space, simplify the customer experience by supporting multi-factor authentication systems, encourage open-loop transit cards, and create parity between cash and digital transactions by removing any sort of inconvenience.

Broadly, policymakers should adopt a wider approach of providing a level playing field to all, while incentivising and encouraging Indian businesses to rise and shine. The former must be tackled with a progressive policy action, and the latter must be treated with foundational support.

To achieve this, the government should revive the Startup India programme that failed to materialise, develop a robust ecosystem of research and development to promote cutting-edge ideas that could eventually turn into a business, and foster the Indian venture capital and investor ecosystem to help raise a greater amount of capital.

Surveillance reforms

An important area of reform for the new government will be to evolve our archaic surveillance mechanisms.

Going forward, a more accountable surveillance ecosystem, based on an act of parliament and judicial safeguards, should be developed with the right policy framework. There is evidence to suggest that a heavily bureaucratised and minimally accountable regime does not contribute significantly to enhancing security, while having huge costs to people’s privacy.

Moreover, this framework should strike a balance between the competing values of privacy and national security, as one is not exclusive to another.

Eventually, we need to move to a lawful, warranted, targeted surveillance mechanism that can be a useful tool in aiding law enforcement agencies in tackling crime and terrorism.

Uphold privacy and revisit Data Protection Bill

Re-visiting areas in the Draft Data Protection Bill, such as allowing cross-border flow of data, strong checks and balances for surveillance agencies, and accountability mechanisms for Data Protection Authority are some reforms the government should seek to undertake. Similarly, it must not compromise on privacy as evident in the intermediary guidelines amendments or the e-commerce policy, requiring tools of automation to clamp down on illegal content, tracing the origin content and asking companies to open source code.

The recent proposed intermediary liability amendment needs to be reviewed keeping in mind the stated end objectives as also the practical considerations. Moreover, the concept of “community data,” as envisaged in the draft e-commerce policy, needs to be done away with as it conflicts with the Right to Privacy guaranteed under the Constitution.

Data is owned by the individual and cannot be shared without his consent. Any data that is collected, processed, or shared in India should flow and be governed from the principles of consent, purpose, storage limitation, and grounds for lawful processing. Additionally, focus must also remain on enhancing digital literacy in the country.

Tackling hate speech

In the wake of the recent Christchurch attacks or 2011 Norway attacks, digital racism, xenophobia, and trolls are on the rise. To tackle hate speech, India should adopt a structured and coherent approach that identifies hate speech, has a robust complaint mechanism, and balances freedom of expression while rejecting prejudices. Self-regulation and user-friendly interface for better filtering of content are some of the measures companies could undertake.

Prepare for the fourth industrial revolution

India’s preparedness for the fourth industrial revolution will contribute majorly to economic growth and provide opportunities to our people, as technology cuts across economic sectors, be they finance, agriculture, healthcare, manufacturing, energy, and more. Such readiness will require strategic policy planning, a need to re-skill our workforce and reform our education system to be able to respond to the evolving needs of the services and manufacturing sectors.

To ensure a healthy internet and digital ecosystem, it will be pivotal to provide customers the best experience they want, encourage industry to innovate and create jobs, while Constitutional values must be protected to guarantee internet freedom in India.

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