NEW DELHI: The government may make it mandatory for companies such as Google, Facebook and Amazon to sell public, or non-personal, data that they collect to anyone in the country seeking access to it, including the government and private entities.
The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) is considering issuing guidelines under the Information Technology Act that will require agencies and companies to share freely available information that they collate in the course of their operations, including traffic, buying and illness patterns. A final decision will be taken only after an ‘exhaustive’ consultation process, a senior official told ET.
This follows an apparent change of view by MeitY, which now says that companies – and not a government repository – should hold and monetise public data.
The official said one has to keep in mind that “these big tech companies certainly were the first ones to come up with the idea and do the work, so just like in critical medicines, they should have the right to charge an economic fee for sharing it.”
The new guidelines will also be aimed at ensuring competition in this space and universal access to the database generated from its citizens, the official said.
At present, when a company like Google takes a user’s consent before allowing access to a service, there is no alternative offered.
“We want to correct this information asymmetry to ensure that there is healthy competition. Right now, the winner takes it all,” the official said.
The ‘Seven Super’ companies – Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, Facebook (all US based) and China’s Tencent and Alibaba – account for two-thirds of the total data market by value, according to a recent report by UNCTAD on the digital economy.
Google has some 90% of the market for internet searches, Facebook accounts for two-thirds of the global social media market and is the top social media platform in more than 90% of the world’s economies. Amazon boasts an almost 40% share of the world’s online retail activity and its Amazon Web Services accounts for a similar share in cloud services, the report said.
India, like other countries, is grappling with how to break the value data chain held by big tech companies and wants them to share their data.
For this, India will need to build a coalition with like-minded partners such as the EU and Japan, which also stand to lose out if they do not address this information asymmetry at the earliest, said Apar Gupta, executive director at the Internet Freedom Foundation.
“Big tech shouldn’t be allowed to withhold it (public data) at any cost, but the modalities, of course, will be worked out through discussions like IP in medicines,” the official said.
Discussions over public data have gained speed in recent days, with top government officials and stakeholders of the view that they should be addressed as a priority. MeitY recently sent out a set of questions to select specialists on how to treat non-personal data and whether it should be part of the proposed Privacy Data Protection Bill.
“There is an increasing consensus within various ministries that both public data guidelines and the private data legislation must go hand in hand rather than wait for the latter to first become law,” a second official said.
Until now, MeitY was of the opinion that once the PDP Bill becomes law, the data authority that will then be set up could take up the matter of anonymised or non-personal data, a view that appears to have changed.
“We will soon begin consultations on this issue. However, the clear thinking in the government is that the data collected belongs to Indian citizens and should be available to Indians,” the official said.
India refused to sign the Osaka Declaration on ‘Free Flow of Data Across Borders’ in June, highlighting its wish not to give up ownership of its data given that with the dominance of the ‘Seven Super’ companies, the rest of the world is trailing far behind the US and China.
“Indeed, in the global ‘data value chain’, many countries may find themselves in subordinate positions, with value and data being concentrated in a few global platforms,” UNCTAD said. It noted that countries at all levels of development were at risk of becoming mere providers of raw data to digital platforms and having to pay for the digital intelligence produced with that data by the platform owners.