Another step towards privacy law

A comparison between the 2012 experts’ report and the 2017 white paper on data protection

Elonnai Hickok | January 9, 2018


#Privacy Law   #Data Protection   #Privacy   #Privacy Legislation   #MeitY   #BN Srikrishna   #TRAI   #Internet Governance  
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)
(Illustration: Ashish Asthana)

On July 31 the ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) constituted a committee of experts, headed by justice (retired) BN Srikrishna, to deliberate on a data protection framework for India. The committee is another step in India’s journey in formulating a national-level privacy legislation.

The formulation of a privacy law started as early as 2010 with an approach paper for a legislation on privacy towards envisioning a privacy framework for India. In 2011, a bill on right to privacy was drafted. In 2012 the planning commission constituted a group of experts, with justice (retired) AP Shah as its chief, which prepared a report recommending a privacy framework.

A month after the formation of the committee, in August, the sectoral regulator, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), released the consultation paper, ‘Privacy, Security and Ownership of the Data in the Telecom Sector’. In the same month, the supreme court in a landmark decision recognised privacy as a fundamental right.

In November 2017, the expert group released a ‘White Paper of the Committee of Experts on a Data Protection Framework for India’ to solicit public comments on the contours of a data protection law for India.

To understand the evolution of the thinking around a privacy framework for India, this article outlines and analyses common themes and differences between (a) the 2012 group of experts’ report, and the 2017 expert committee’s white paper.

The white paper seeks to gather inputs from the public on key issues towards the development of a data protection law for India. The paper places itself in the context of the NDA government’s Digital India initiative, the justice Shah committee report, and the judicial developments on the right to privacy in India. It is divided into three substantive parts: (1) scope and exemptions, (2) grounds of processing, obligation and entities, individual rights, and (3) regulation and enforcement. Each part is comprised of deep dives into key issues, international practices, preliminary views of the committee, and questions for public consultation.

Broadly, the 2012 report defined nine national-level privacy principles and recommended a co-regulatory framework that consisted of privacy commissioners, courts, self-regulating organisations, data controllers, and privacy officers at the organisational level. At the outset, the 2017 white paper is different from that report simply by the fact that it is a consultation paper soliciting views as compared to a report that recommends a broad privacy framework for India. In doing so, the white paper explores a broader set of issues than those discussed in the justice Shah report – ranging from the implications of emerging technologies on the relevance of traditional privacy principles, data localisation, child’s consent, individual participation rights, the right to be forgotten, cross-border flow of data, breach notification etc. Given that the white paper is a consultation paper, this article examines the provisional views shared in it with the recommendations of the 2012 report.

Key areas that the both the documents touch upon (though not necessarily agree on) include:

Applicability

The 2012 report of experts recommended a privacy legislation that extends the right to privacy to all persons in India, all data that is processed by a company or equipment located in India, and to data that originate in India.

Provisional views in the white paper reflect this position, but also offer that applicability could be in part determined by the legitimate interest of the state, carrying on a business or offering services or goods in India, and if, despite location, the entity is processing the personal data of Indian citizens. The provisional views also touch upon retrospective application of a data protection law and agree with the 2012 report by recommending that a law apply to privacy and public bodies. They also go a step further by recommending specific exemptions in application for well defined categories of public or private entities.

Exceptions

The experts’ report defined the following exceptions to the right to privacy: artistic and journalistic purposes, household purposes, historic and scientific research, and the Right to Information. Exceptions that must be weighed against the principles of proportionality, legality, and necessary in a democratic state included: national security, public order, disclosure in public
interest, prevention, detection, investigation, and prosecution of criminal offences, and protection of the individual or of the rights and freedoms of others.

Provisional views in the 2017 white paper broadly mirror the exemptions defined in the experts’ report, but do not weigh exceptions related to national security and public interest etc. against the principles of proportionality, legality, and necessary in a democratic state and instead explored a review mechanism for these exceptions.

Consent

Provisional views in the white paper on consent note that aspects of consent should include that it is freely given, informed and specific and that standards for implied consent need to be evolved.

Though the 2012 experts’ report defined a principle for choice and consent, this principle did not define aspects of what would constitute valid consent, yet it did incorporate an opt-out mechanism.

Notice

Provisional views in the white paper hold that notice is important in enabling consent and explore a number of mechanisms that can be implemented to effect meaningful notice such as codes of practice for designing notice, multilayered notices, assessing notices in privacy impact assessments, assigning ‘data trust scores’ based on their data use policy, and having a ‘consent dashboard’ to help individuals manage their consent across entities.

These views build upon and complement the principle of notice defined in the 2012 report which defined components of a privacy policy as well as other forms of notice including data breach (also addressed in the white paper) and legal access to personal information.

Purpose limitation/minimisation

Provisional views in the white paper recognise the challenges that evolving technology is posing to the principle of purpose limitation and recommend that layered privacy policies and the standard of reasonableness can be used to contextualise this principle to actual purposes and uses.

Though the 2012 report defined a purpose limitation principle, the principle does not incorporate a standard of reasonableness or explore methods of implementation.

Data Retention and Quality

Provisional views in the white paper suggest that the principles of data retention and data quality can be guided by the terms “reasonably and necessary” to ensure that they are not overly burdensome on industry.

The 2012 report of experts briefly touched on data retention in the principle of purpose limitation –holding that practices should be in compliance with the national privacy principles.

Right to Access

Provisional views in the white paper recognise the importance of the right confirmation, access, and rectify personal information of the individual, but note that this is increasingly becoming harder to enforce with respect to data that is observed behavioral data and derived from habits. A suggested solution is to impose a fee on individuals for using these rights to deter frivolous requests.

Though the 2012 report defined a principle of access and correction it did not propose a fee for using this right and it included the caveat that if the access would affect the privacy rights of others, access may not be given by the data controller.

Enforcement Mechanisms

Provisional views in the 2017 white paper broadly agree with the appropriateness of the model of co-regulation and development of codes of practice as suggested in the 2012 report. Within the system envisioned in the 2012 report of experts, self-regulating organisations at the industry level will have the ability to develop industry specific norms and standards in compliance with the national privacy principles to be approved by the privacy commissioner.

Accountability

The provisional views of the white paper go beyond the principle of accountability defined in the 2012 report by suggesting that data controllers should not only be held accountable for implementation of defined data protection standards, but in defined circumstances, also for harm that is caused to an individual.

Additional obligations on data controllers

Provisional views in the white paper suggest the following mechanisms as methods towards ensuring accountability of specific categories of data controllers: registration, data protection impact assessment, data audits, and data protection officers that are centres of accountability.

The 2012 experts’ report also envisioned impact assessments and investigations carried out by the privacy commissioner and the role of a data controller, but did not explore registration of these entities.

Authorities and adjudication

The both documents are in agreement on the need for a privacy commissioner/data protection authority and envision similar functions such as conducting privacy impact assessments, audits, investigation, and levying of fines. The white paper differs from the 2012 experts’ report in its view that the appellate tribunals under the IT Act and bodies like the National Commission Disputes Redressal Commission could potentially be appropriate venues for adjudicating and resolving disputes.

Though the 2012 experts’ report recommended that complaints can be issued through an alternative dispute resolution mechanism, to central and regional level commissioners, or to the courts – for remedies– enforcement of penalties should involve district and high-level courts and the supreme court. The 2012 report specified that a distinct tribunal should not be created nor should existing tribunals be relied upon as there is the possibility that the institution will not have the capacity to rule on a broad right of privacy. Individuals that can be held liable by individuals include data controllers, organisation directors, agency directors, and heads of governmental departments.

Penalty and Remedy

The white paper goes much further in its thinking on penalties, remedies and compensation than the 2012 report of experts – discussing potential models for calculation of civil penalties including nature and extent of violation of the data protection obligation, nature of personal information involved, number of individuals affected, whether infringement was intentional or negligent, measures taken by the data controller to mitigate the damage, and previous track record of the data controller.

The white paper is a progressive and positive step towards formulating a data protection law for India that is effective and relevant nationally and internationally. It will be interesting to see the public response to it and the response of the committee to the inputs received from the consultation as well as how the final recommendations differ, build upon, and incorporate previous policy steps towards a comprehensive privacy framework for India.

Hickok is director, internet governance, at the Centre for Internet and Society, Bengaluru. CIS was part of the justice Shah headed group of experts on privacy.

(The column appears in the January 15, 2018 issue)

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