Centre for Internet & Society

The increasing digitalization of the economy and ubiquity of the Internet, coupled with developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) has given rise to transformational business models across several sectors.


This piece was originally published in The Economic Times Telecom, on 8 September, 2020.


The increasing digitalization of the economy and ubiquity of the Internet, coupled with developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) has given rise to transformational business models across several sectors. These developments have changed the very structure of existing sectors, with a few dominant firms straddling across many sectors. The position of these firms is entrenched due to the large amounts of data they have, and usage of sophisticated algorithms that deliver very targeted service/content and their global nature.

Such data based network businesses are generally multi-sided platforms subject to network effects and winner takes all phenomena, often, making traditional competition regulation inappropriate. In addition, there has been concern that such companies hurt competition as they are owners of large amounts of data collected globally, the very basis on which new services are predicated. Also since users have an inertia to share their data on multiple platforms, new companies find it very challenging to emerge. Several of the large companies are of US origin. Several regions/countries such as EU, UK, India are concerned that while these companies benefit from the data of their citizens or their devices, SMEs and other companies in their own countries find it increasingly difficult to remain viable or achieve scale. With the objective of supporting enterprises, including SMEs in their own countries, Europe, UK India are in different stages of data regulation initiatives.

In India, the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2019 deals with the framework for collecting, managing and transferring of Personal Data of Indian citizens, including mandating sharing of anonymized data of individuals and non-personal data for better targeting of services or policy making. In addition, the Report by the Committee of Experts (CoE) on Non Personal Data (NPD) came up with a Framework for Regulating NPD. Since the NPD Report is a more recent phenomenon, this articles analyzes some aspects of it.

According to CoE, non-personal data could be of two types. First, data or information which was never about an individual (e.g. weather data). Second, data or information that once was related to an individual (e.g. mobile number) but has now ceased to be identifiable due to the removal of certain identifiers through the process of ‘anonymisation’. However, it may be possible to recover the personal data from such anonymized data and therefore, the distinction between personal and non-personal is not clean. In any case, the PDP bill 2019 deals with personal data. If the CoE felt that some aspect of personal data (including anonymized data) were not adequately dealt with, it should work to strengthen it. The current approach of the CoE is bound to create confusion and overlapping jurisdiction. Since anonymized data is required to be shared, there are disincentives to anonymization, causing greater risk to individual privacy.

A new class of business based on a “horizontal classification cutting across different industry sectors” is defined. This refers to any business that derives “new or additional economic value from data, by collecting, storing, processing, and managing data” based on a certain threshold of data collected/processed that will be defined by the regulatory authority that is outlined in the report. The CoE also recommends that “Data Businesses will provide, within India, open access to meta-data and regulated access to the underlying data” without any remuneration. Further, “By looking at the meta-data, potential users may identify opportunities for combining data from multiple Data Businesses and/or governments to develop innovative solutions, products and services. Subsequently, data requests may be made for the detailed underlying data”.

With increasing digitalization, today almost every business is a data business. The problem in such categorization will be with the definition of thresholds. It is likely that even a small video sharing app or an AR/VR app would store/collect/process/transmit more data than say a mid-sized bank in terms of data volumes. Further, with increasing embedding of IoT in various aspects of our lives and businesses (smart manufacturing, logistics, banking etc), the amount of data that is captured by even small entities can be huge.

The private sector, driven by profitability, identifies innovative business models, risks capital and finds unique ways of capturing and melding different data sets. In order to sustain economic growth, such innovation is necessary. The private sector would also like legal protection over these aspects of its businesses, including the unique IPR that may be embedded in the processing of data or its business processes. But mandating such onerous requirements on sharing by the CoE is going to kill any private initiative. Any regulatory regime must balance between the need to provide a secure environment for protecting data of incumbents and making it available to SMEs/businesses.

Meta data provides insights to the company’s databases and processes. These are source of competitive advantage for any company. Meta data is not without a context. The basis of demanding such disclosure is mandated with the proposed NPD Regulator who would evaluate such a purpose. In practice, purposes are open to interpretation and the structure of appeal mechanism etc is going to stall any such sharing. Would such mandates of sharing not interfere with the existing Intellectual Property Rights? Or the freedom to contract? Any innovation could easily be made available to a competitor that front-ends itself with a start-up. To mandate making such data available would not be fair. Further, how would the NPD regulator even ensure that such data is used for the purpose (which the proposed regulator is supposed to evaluate) that it is sought for? In Europe, where such data sharing mandates are being considered, the focus is on public data. For private entities, the sharing is largely based on voluntary contributions. Compulsory sharing is mandated only under restricted situations where market failure situations are not addressed through Competition Act and provided legitimate interest of the data holder and existing legal provisions are taken into account.

Further, the compliance requirements for such Data Businesses is very onerous and makes a mockery of “minimum government” framework of the government. The CoE recommends that all Data Businesses, whether government NGO, or private “to disclose data elements collected, stored and processed, and data-based services offered”. As if this was not enough, the CoE further recommends that “Every Data Business must declare what they do and what data they collect, process and use, in which manner, and for what purposes (like disclosure of data elements collected, where data is stored, standards adopted to store and secure data, nature of data processing and data services provided). This is similar to disclosures required by pharma industry and in food products”. Such disclosures are necessary in these industries as the companies in this sector deal with critical aspects of human life. But are such requirements necessary for all activities and businesses? As long as organizations collect and process data, in a legal manner, within the sectoral regulation, why should such information have to be “reported”? Further, such bureaucratic processes and reporting requirements are only going to be a burden to existing legitimate businesses and give rise to a thriving regulatory license raj.

Further questions that arise are: How is any compliance agency going to make sure that all the underlying metadata is made available in a timely manner? As companies respond to a dynamic environment, their analysis and analytical tools change and so does the metadata. This inherent aspect of businesses raises the question: At what point in time should companies make their meta-data available? How will the compliance be monitored?

Conclusion: The CoE needs to create an enabling and facilitating an environment for data sharing. The incentives for different types of entities to participate and contribute must be recognized. Adequate provisions for risks and liabilities arising out data sharing need to be thought through. National initiatives on data sharing should not create an onerous reporting regime, as envisaged by the CoE, even if digital.

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