Reflections on Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019

By Sangh Rakshita and Nidhi Singh

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 The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 (PDP Bill/ Bill) was introduced in the Lok Sabha on December 11, 2019 , and was immediately referred to a joint committee of the Parliament. The joint committee published a press communique on February 4, 2020 inviting comments on the Bill from the public.

The Bill is the successor to the Draft Personal Data Protection Bill 2018 (Draft Bill 2018), recommended by a government appointed expert committee chaired by Justice B.N. Srikrishna. In August 2018, shortly after the recommendations and publication of the draft Bill, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) invited comments on the Draft Bill 2018 from the public. (Our comments are available here.)[1]

In this post we undertake a preliminary examination of:

  • The scope and applicability of the PDP Bill
  • The application of general data protection principles
  • The rights afforded to data subjects
  • The exemptions provided to the application of the law

In future posts in the series we will examine the Bill and look at the:

  • The restrictions on cross border transfer of personal data
  • The structure and functions of the regulatory authority
  • The enforcement mechanism and the penalties under the PDP Bill

Scope and Applicability

The Bill identifies four different categories of data. These are personal data, sensitive personal data, critical personal data and non-personal data

Personal data is defined as “data about or relating to a natural person who is directly or indirectly identifiable, having regard to any characteristic, trait, attribute or any other feature of the identity of such natural person, whether online or offline, or any combination of such features with any other information, and shall include any inference drawn from such data for the purpose of profiling. (emphasis added)

The addition of inferred data in the definition realm of personal data is an interesting reflection of the way the conversation around data protection has evolved in the past few months, and requires further analysis.

Sensitive personal data is defined as data that may reveal, be related to or constitute a number of different categories of personal data, including financial data, health data, official identifiers, sex life, sexual orientation, genetic data, transgender status, intersex status, caste or tribe, and religious and political affiliations / beliefs. In addition, under clause 15 of the Bill the Central Government can notify other categories of personal data as sensitive personal data in consultation with the Data Protection Authority and the relevant sectoral regulator.

Similar to the 2018 Bill, the current bill does not define critical personal data and clause 33 provides the Central Government the power to notify what is included under critical personal data. However, in its report accompanying the 2018 Bill, the Srikrishna committee had referred to some examples of critical personal data that relate to critical state interest like Aadhaar number, genetic data, biometric data, health data, etc.

The Bill retains the terminology introduced in the 2018 Draft Bill, referring to data controllers as ‘data fiduciaries’ and data subjects ‘data principals’. The new terminology was introduced with the purpose of reflecting the fiduciary nature of the relationship between the data controllers and subjects. However, whether the use of the specific terminology has more impact on the protection and enforcement of the rights of the data subjects still needs to be seen.

 Application of PDP Bill 2019

The Bill is applicable to (i) the processing of any personal data, which has been collected, disclosed, shared or otherwise processed in India; (ii) the processing of personal data by the Indian government, any Indian company, citizen, or person/ body of persons incorporated or created under Indian law; and (iii) the processing of personal data in relation to any individuals in India, by any persons outside of India.

The scope of the 2019 Bill, is largely similar in this context to that of the 2018 Draft Bill. However, one key difference is seen in relation to anonymised data. While the 2018 Draft Bill completely exempted anonymised data from its scope, the 2019 Bill does not apply to anonymised data, except under clause 91 which gives the government powers to mandate the use and processing of non-personal data or anonymised personal data under policies to promote the digital economy. There are a few concerns that arise in context of this change in treatment of anonymised personal data. First, there are concerns on the concept of anonymisation of personal data itself. While the Bill provides that the Data Protection Authority (DPA) will specify appropriate standards of irreversibility for the process of anonymisation, it is not clear that a truly irreversible form of anonymisation is possible at all. In this case, we need more clarity on what safeguards will be applicable for the use of anonymised personal data.

Second, is the Bill’s focus on the promotion of the digital economy. We have previously discussed some of the concerns regarding focus on the promotion of digital economy in a rights based legislation in our comments to the Draft Bill 2018.

These issues continue to be of concern, and are perhaps heightened with the introduction of a specific provision on the subject in the 2019 Bill (especially without adequate clarity on what services or policy making efforts in this direction, are to be informed by the use of anonymised personal data). Many of these issues are also still under discussion by the committee of experts set up to deliberate on data governance framework (non-personal data). The mandate of this committee includes the study of various issues relating to non-personal data, and to make specific suggestions for consideration of the central government on regulation of non-personal data.

The formation of the non-personal data committee was in pursuance of a recommendation by the Justice Srikrishna Committee to frame a legal framework for the protection of community data, where the community is identifiable. The mandate of the expert committee will overlap with the application of clause 91(2) of the Bill.

Data Fiduciaries, Social Media Intermediaries and Consent Managers

Data Fiduciaries

As discussed above the Bill categorises data controllers as data fiduciaries and significant data fiduciaries. Any person that determines the purpose and means of processing of personal data, (including the State, companies, juristic entities or individuals) is considered a data fiduciary. Some data fiduciaries may be notified as ‘significant data fiduciaries’, on the basis of factors such as the volume and sensitivity of personal data processed, the risks of harm etc. Significant data fiduciaries are held to higher standards of data protection. Under clauses 27-30, significant data fiduciaries are required to carry out data protection impact assessments, maintain accurate records, audit policy and the conduct of its processing of personal data and appoint a data protection officer. 

Social Media Intermediaries

The Bill introduces a distinct category of intermediaries called social media intermediaries. Under clause 26(4) a social media intermediary is ‘an intermediary who primarily or solely enables online interaction between two or more users and allows them to create, upload, share, disseminate, modify or access information using its services’. Intermediaries that primarily enable commercial or business-oriented transactions, provide access to the Internet, or provide storage services are not to be considered social media intermediaries.

Social media intermediaries may be notified to be significant data fiduciaries, if they have a minimum number of users, and their actions have or are likely to have a significant impact on electoral democracy, security of the State, public order or the sovereignty and integrity of India.

Under clause 28 social media intermediaries that have been notified as a significant data fiduciaries will be required to provide for voluntary verification of users to be accompanied with a demonstrable and visible mark of verification.

Consent Managers

The Bill also introduces the idea of a ‘consent manager’ i.e. a (third party) data fiduciary which provides for management of consent through an ‘accessible, transparent and interoperable platform’. The Bill does not contain any details on how consent management will be operationalised, and only states that these details will be specified by regulations under the Bill. 

Data Protection Principles and Obligations of Data Fiduciaries

Consent and grounds for processing

The Bill recognises consent as well as a number of other grounds for the processing of personal data.

Clause 11 provides that personal data shall only be processed if consent is provided by the data principal at the commencement of processing. This provision, similar to the consent provision in the 2018 Draft Bill, draws from various principles including those under the Indian Contract Act, 1872 to inform the concept of valid consent under the PDP Bill. The clause requires that the consent should be free, informed, specific, clear and capable of being withdrawn.

Moreover, explicit consent is required for the processing of sensitive personal data. The current Bill appears to be silent on issues such as incremental consent which were highlighted in our comments in the context of the Draft Bill 2018.

The Bill provides for additional grounds for processing of personal data, consisting of very broad (and much criticised) provisions for the State to collect personal data without obtaining consent. In addition, personal data may be processed without consent if required in the context of employment of an individual, as well as a number of other ‘reasonable purposes’. Some of the reasonable purposes, which were listed in the Draft Bill 2018 as well, have also been a cause for concern given that they appear to serve mostly commercial purposes, without regard for the potential impact on the privacy of the data principal.

In a notable change from the Draft Bill 2018, the PDP Bill, appears to be silent on whether these other grounds for processing will be applicable in relation to sensitive personal data (with the exception of processing in the context of employment which is explicitly barred).

Other principles

The Bill also incorporates a number of traditional data protection principles in the chapter outlining the obligations of data fiduciaries. Personal data can only be processed for a specific, clear and lawful purpose. Processing must be undertaken in a fair and reasonable manner and must ensure the privacy of the data principal – a clear mandatory requirement, as opposed to a ‘duty’ owed by the data fiduciary to the data principal in the Draft Bill 2018 (this change appears to be in line with recommendations made in multiple comments to the Draft Bill 2018 by various academics, including our own).

Purpose and collection limitation principles are mandated, along with a detailed description of the kind of notice to be provided to the data principal, either at the time of collection, or as soon as possible if the data is obtained from a third party. The data fiduciary is also required to ensure that data quality is maintained.

A few changes in the application of data protection principles, as compared to the Draft Bill 2018, can be seen in the data retention and accountability provisions.

On data retention, clause 9 of the Bill provides that personal data shall not be retained beyond the period ‘necessary’ for the purpose of data processing, and must be deleted after such processing, ostensibly a higher standard as compared to ‘reasonably necessary’ in the Draft Bill 2018. Personal data may only be retained for a longer period if explicit consent of the data principal is obtained, or if retention is required to comply with law. In the face of the many difficulties in ensuring meaningful consent in today’s digital world, this may not be a win for the data principal.

Clause 10 on accountability continues to provide that the data fiduciary will be responsible for compliance in relation to any processing undertaken by the data fiduciary or on its behalf. However, the data fiduciary is no longer required to demonstrate such compliance.

Rights of Data Principals

Chapter V of the PDP Bill 2019 outlines the Rights of Data Principals, including the rights to access, confirmation, correction, erasure, data portability and the right to be forgotten. 

Right to Access and Confirmation

The PDP Bill 2019 makes some amendments to the right to confirmation and access, included in clause 17 of the bill. The right has been expanded in scope by the inclusion of sub-clause (3). Clause 17(3) requires data fiduciaries to provide data principals information about the identities of any other data fiduciaries with whom their personal data has been shared, along with details about the kind of data that has been shared.

This allows the data principal to exert greater control over their personal data and its use.  The rights to confirmation and access are important rights that inform and enable a data principal to exercise other rights under the data protection law. As recognized in the Srikrishna Committee Report, these are ‘gateway rights’, which must be given a broad scope.

Right to Erasure

The right to correction (Clause 18) has been expanded to include the right to erasure. This allows data principals to request erasure of personal data which is not necessary for processing. While data fiduciaries may be allowed to refuse correction or erasure, they would be required to produce a justification in writing for doing so, and if there is a continued dispute, indicate alongside the personal data that such data is disputed.

The addition of a right to erasure, is an expansion of rights from the 2018 Bill. While the right to be forgotten only restricts or discontinues disclosure of personal data, the right to erasure goes a step ahead and empowers the data principal to demand complete removal of data from the system of the data fiduciary.

Many of the concerns expressed in the context of the Draft Bill 2018, in terms of the procedural conditions for the exercise of the rights of data principals, as well as the right to data portability specifically, continue to persist in the PDP Bill 2019.

Exceptions and Exemptions

While the PDP Bill ostensibly enables individuals to exercise their right to privacy against the State and the private sector, there are several exemptions available, which raise several concerns.

The Bill grants broad exceptions to the State. In some cases, it is in the context of specific obligations such as the requirement for individuals’ consent. In other cases, State action is almost entirely exempted from obligations under the law. Some of these exemptions from data protection obligations are available to the private sector as well, on grounds like journalistic purposes, research purposes and in the interests of innovation.

The most concerning of these provisions, are the exemptions granted to intelligence and law enforcement agencies under the Bill. The Draft Bill 2018, also provided exemptions to intelligence and law enforcement agencies, so far as the privacy invasive actions of these agencies were permitted under law, and met procedural standards, as well as legal standards of necessity and proportionality. We have previously discussed some of the concerns with this approach here.

The exemptions provided to these agencies under the PDP Bill, seem to exacerbate these issues.

Under the Bill, the Central Government can exempt an agency of the government from the application of this Act by passing an order with reasons recorded in writing if it is of the opinion that the exemption is necessary or expedient in the interest of sovereignty and integrity, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order; or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to the aforementioned grounds. Not only have the grounds on which government agencies can be exempted been worded in an expansive manner, the procedure of granting these exemptions also is bereft of any safeguards.

The executive functioning in India suffers from problems of opacity and unfettered discretion at times, which requires a robust system of checks and balances to avoid abuse. The Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 (Telegraph Act) and the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act) enable government surveillance of communications made over telephones and the internet. For drawing comparison here, we primarily refer to the Telegraph Act as it allows the government to intercept phone calls on similar grounds as mentioned in clause 35 of the Bill by an order in writing. However, the Telegraph Act limits the use of this power to two scenarios – occurrence of a public emergency or in the interest of public safety. The government cannot intercept communications made over telephones in the absence of these two preconditions. The Supreme Court in People’s Union for Civil Liberties v. Union of India, (1997) introduced guidelines to check abuse of surveillance powers under the Telegraph Act which were later incorporated in Rule 419A of the Indian Telegraph Rules, 1951. A prominent safeguard included in Rule 419A requires that surveillance and monitoring orders be issued only after considering ‘other reasonable means’ for acquiring the required information. The court had further limited the scope of interpretation of ‘public emergency’ and ‘public safety’ to mean “the prevalence of a sudden condition or state of affairs affecting the people at large and calling for immediate action”, and “the state or condition of freedom from danger or risk at large” respectively. In spite of the introduction of these safeguards, the procedure of intercepting telephone communications under the Telegraph Act is criticised for lack of transparency and improper implementation. For instance, a 2014 report revealed that around 7500 – 9000 phone interception orders were issued by the Central Government every month. The application of procedural safeguards, in each case would have been physically impossible given the sheer numbers. Thus, legislative and judicial oversight becomes a necessity in such cases.

The constitutionality of India’s surveillance apparatus inclduing section 69 of the IT Act which allows for surveillance on broader grounds on the basis of necessity and expediency and not ‘public emergency’ and ‘public safety’, has been challenged before the Supreme Court and is currently pending. Clause 35 of the Bill also mentions necessity and expediency as prerequisites for the government to exercise its power to grant exemption, which appear to be vague and open-ended as they are not defined. The test of necessity, implies resorting to the least intrusive method of encroachment up on privacy to achieve the legitimate state aim. This test is typically one among several factors applied in deciding on whether a particular intrusion on a right is tenable or not, under human rights law. In his concurring opinion in Puttaswamy (I) J. Kaul had included ‘necessity’ in the proportionality test. (However, this test is not otherwise well developed in Indian jurisprudence).  Expediency, on the other hand, is not a specific legal basis used for determining the validity of an intrusion on human rights. It has also not been referred to in Puttaswamy (I) as a basis of assessing a privacy violation. The use of the term ‘expediency’ in the Bill is deeply worrying as it seems to bring down the threshold for allowing surveillance which is a regressive step in the context of cases like PUCL and Puttaswamy (I). A valid law along with the principles of proportionality and necessity are essential to put in place an effective system of checks and balances on the powers of the executive to provide exemptions. It seems unlikely that the clause will pass the test of proportionality (sanction of law, legitimate aim, proportionate to the need of interference, and procedural guarantees against abuse) as laid down by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy (I).

The Srikrishna Committee report had recommended that surveillance should not only be conducted under law (and not executive order), but also be subject to oversight, and transparency requirements. The Committee had argued that the tests of lawfulness, necessity and proportionality provided for under clauses 42 and 43 (of the Draft Bill 2018) were sufficient to meet the standards set out under the Puttaswamy judgment. Since the PDP Bill completely does away with all these safeguards and leaves the decision to executive discretion, the law is unconstitutional.  After the Bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha, J. Srikrishna had criticised it for granting expansive exemptions in the absence of judicial oversight. He warned that the consequences could be disastrous from the point of view of safeguarding the right to privacy and could turn the country into an “Orwellian State”. He has also opined on the need for a separate legislation to govern the terms under which the government can resort to surveillance.

Clause 36 of the Bill deals with exemption of some provisions for certain processing of personal data. It combines four different clauses on exemption which were listed in the Draft Bill 2018 (clauses 43, 44, 46 and 47). These include processing of personal data in the interests of prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of contraventions of law; for the purpose of legal proceedings; personal or domestic purposes; and journalistic purposes. The Draft Bill 2018 had detailed provisions on the need for a law passed by Parliament or the State Legislature which is necessary and proportionate, for processing of personal data in the interests of prevention, detection, investigation and prosecution of contraventions of law. Clause 36 of the Bill does not enumerate the need for a law to process personal data under these exemptions. We had argued that these exemptions granted by the Draft Bill 2018 (clauses 43, 44, 46 and 47) were wide, vague and needed clarifications, but the exemptions under clause 36 of the Bill  are even more ambiguous as they merely enlist the exemptions without any specificities or procedural safeguards in place.

In the Draft Bill 2018, the Authority could not give exemption from the obligation of fair and reasonable processing, measures of security safeguards and data protection impact assessment for research, archiving or statistical purposes As per the current Bill, the Authority can provide exemption from any of the provisions of the Act for research, archiving or statistical purposes.

The last addition to this chapter of exemptions is that of creating a sandbox for encouraging innovation. This newly added clause 40 is aimed at encouraging innovation in artificial intelligence, machine-learning or any other emerging technology in public interest. The details of what the sandbox entails other than exemption from some of the obligations of Chapter II might need further clarity. Additionally, to be considered an eligible applicant, a data fiduciary has to necessarily obtain certification of its privacy by design policy from the DPA, as mentioned in clause 40(4) read with clause 22.

Though well appreciated for its intent, this provision requires clarification on grounds of selection and details of what the sandbox might entail.


[1] At the time of introduction of the PDP Bill 2019, the Minister for Law and Justice of India, Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad suggested that over 2000 inputs were received on the Draft Bill 2018, based on which changes have been made in the PDP Bill 2019. However, these comments and inputs have not been published by MeitY, and only a handful of comments have been published, by the stakeholders submitting these comments themselves.   

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