The Economic Survey suggested the government could monetise citizens’ data as part of its larger plan to use data as a public good.
Making the case for digital storage and processing of data, the Survey said technology has played a major role in bringing down the cost and effort of data collection, storage, processing and dissemination.
“Data is generated by the people, of the people and should be used for the people. As a public good, data can be democratised and put to the best possible use,” it noted.
The Survey proposes improving the delivery of government services by building on the “administrative, survey, institutional and transactions data” that the citizens willingly or lawfully share with the government.
The government would be able to improve targeting in welfare schemes and subsidies by reducing errors, it said.
“The private sector may be granted access to select databases for commercial use. Consistent with the notion of data as a public good, there is no reason to preclude commercial use of this data for profit... Although the social benefits would far exceed the cost to the government, at least a part of the generated data should be monetised to ease the pressure on government finances.
Given that the private sector has the potential to reap massive dividends from this data, it is only fair to charge them for its use,” the Survey notes.
It further says that “datasets may be sold to analytics agencies that process the data, generate insights, and sell the insights further to the corporate sector, which may in turn use these insights to predict demand, discover untapped markets or innovate new product”.
At present, there is no law that explicitly deals with monetisation of government or other data. The proposed Personal Data Protection Bill, in its last draft, does not deal with this issue comprehensively.
Legal and social implications
The suggestion to sell data was not received with much enthusiasm by legal experts.
“Governments usually do not monetise citizen data, however such measures have been implemented. For instance, the Ministry of Road and Highways announced a policy for sale of vehicular registration data. This is concerning as India does not have any meaningful data protection law,” said Apar Gupta, executive editor at digital rights organisation Internet Freedom Foundation.
According to Salman Waris, managing partner at TechLegis Advocates & Solicitors, two proposed legislations, if passed, would directly contradict the plan charted out in the Economic Survey.
“Currently there are no specific provisions that prevent the government from granting private sector access to select public databases for commercial use.” “However there are two proposed legislations (Digital Information Security In Healthcare Bill, 2018, and the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018) pending in the Parliament which, if implemented in their current form, could have direct bearing on the proposed activity and the same could lead to a situation where the government may be directly violating its own laws by engaging in such activities, at least from the commercial perspective,” said Waris.
Another expert pointed out that the proposed applications were problematic. “It is proved by research that there is no fully secure way of data anonymisation and it is possible to re-identify data... this means data of minors can get re-identified or misused,” said Smitha Krishna Prasad, Associate Director, Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi.