As per the latest figures released by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), post-COVID-19, the world witnessed a sharp rise in the number of internet users from 4.1 billion people (54% of the world population) in 2019 to 4.9 billion people (63% of the world population) in 2021. However, the same report states that some 2.9 billion people remain offline, 96% of whom live in developing countries. These stark differences emanate from several barriers faced by the residents of the developing countries and include lack of access because of unaffordability of ICT services, lack of strong technological and industrial bases, inadequate R&D facilities, and deficient ICT operating skills.
Countries are increasingly exploring different ways to partner with other countries through multilateral, bilateral, and other legal arrangements. The countries often forge bilateral cooperation with other countries through signing Memorandum of Understanding(MOUs), Memorandum of Cooperation (MOCs) and creating Joint Working Groups, and Joint Declarations of Intent, among others. These are informal legal instruments as compared to typical treaties or international agreements, and promote international cooperation in strategic interest areas. India has a detailed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) with respect to MOUs/agreements with foreign countries. The SOP lays down the Indian legal practice on treaty formation and detailed guidelines in respect to the different international agreements that may be signed by the countries.
India has executed several MOUs, MOCs, Joint Declaration of Intent, and Working Groups to identify common interests, priorities, policy dialogue, and the necessary tools for ICT collaboration. These include a broad range of areas, including the development of IT software, telecom software, IT-enabled services, E-commerce services & information security, electronic governance, IT and electronics hardware, Human Resource Development for IT education, IT-enabled education, Research and Development, strengthening the cooperation between private and public sector, collaboration in the field of emerging technologies, capacity building and technical assistance in the ICT sector.
Aims and Objectives
This mapping exercise lists the numerous bilateral MOUs, Joint Declarations and other agreements signed between India and partner countries to locate the nature and extent of international collaborative efforts in the ICT sector. Furthermore, this mapping exercise aims to understand India’s strategic interests and priority areas in the sector and evaluate India’s unique positioning in South-South Cooperation. The said mapping exercise remains a work in progress and shall be updated at periodic intervals.
The mapping exercise includes an assessment of 36 MOUs and 5 other agreements subdivided into four categories: Fixed Term/ Renewed ICT MOUs (13), Open-Ended ICT MOUs (4), ICT MOUs with Pending Renewal/ Extension and Expired MOUs (19), and Joint Declaration and Proposals concerning ICT Sector (5). The relevant details of such MOUs are derived from publicly available information provided by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Society (MeitY), Department of Telecommunication (DoT), Ministry of Communications (MOC) and the Indian Treaties Database by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). The current analysis attempts to bring out the different MOUs, MOCs, and Joint Declarations of Intent executed by Indian authorities (MeitY, MOC and MEA), their duration of operation and the areas covered under the scope of such collaboration.
Some of our key observations from the mapping exercise are as follows:
India has entered into MOUs/ Joint Declaration of Intent and other agreements with both developed and developing countries. These include Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Estonia, Israel, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, United Kingdom, among others.
Within India’s ICT cooperation and collaboration landscape, we have identified the following as priority areas:
Building capacity of CERTs and law enforcement agencies
1. Cybersecurity technology cooperation relevant to CERT activities. 2. Exchange of information on prevalent cybersecurity policies and best practices. 3. CERT-to-CERT Cooperation. 4. Exchange of experiences regarding technical infrastructure of CERT.
Technical assistance and capacity building
1. Human resource development including training of Govt. officials in e-governance. 2. Institutional cooperation among the academic and training institutions. 3. Strengthening collaboration in areas such as e-government, m-governance, smart infrastructure, e-health, among others.
Sharing of technology, standardization and certification
1. Cooperation in software development, rural telecommunication, manufacturing of telecom manufacturing and sharing of know-how technologies. 2. Cooperation in exchanging and developing technology. 3. Standardisation, testing and certification.
B2B cooperation and economic advancement
1. Enhancing B2B cooperation in cyber security. 2.Enable and strengthen industrial, technological and commercial cooperation between industry and research establishments. 3.Exploring third country markets. 4. Favourable environment for the business entities through various measures to facilitate trade and investment.
On April 1st 2022, the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA’s) First Committee on Disarmament and International Security concluded the week-long second substantive session of the second Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) on the security of and in the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs). This process is the UN’s second OEWG involving all 193 UN Member States on matters relating to international cybersecurity. There have also been six prior UN Group of Government Experts (GGEs) on similar issues.
This post is the first of a three-part series which analyses key developments at the OEWG’s second substantive session in the period between March 28 and April 01, 2022. This piece outlines discussions on a key issue – multistakeholder engagement within the OEWG process.
The second OEWG was established by UNGA Resolution 75/240 adopted on December 31, 2020. The resolution describes ICTs as “dual-use technologies” which can be used for both “… legitimate and malicious purposes”. This language within the resolution is curious since this would mean that dual-use technologies are capable of being used in lawful and unlawful scenarios. This is a departure from how “dual-use technologies” are traditionally defined as technologies which have both civilian and military applications and use cases.
Keeping this in mind, the resolution presciently expresses concern that some States are building up military ICT capabilities and that they could play active roles in future conflicts between States. Given their potential threat to national security, Resolution 75/240 establishes a new OEWG for the period between 2021 and 2025 which must act on a consensus basis. The second OEWG is expected to build on the aforementioned prior work of the GGEs and the first OEWG. The OEWG has been assigned a broad substantive mandate which includes:
Identifying existing and potential threats in the sphere of information security;
further developing the internationally agreed voluntary rules, norms and principles of responsible State behaviour in cyberspace. This entails identifying mechanisms for implementation and, if necessary, introducing and/or elaborating additional cyber norms;
developing an understanding of the manner in which international law applies to States’ use of ICTs;
capacity building and confidence-building measures on matters relating to international cybersecurity;
establishing mechanisms of regular institutional dialogue under the UN.
Resolution 75/240 specifies that aside from a final consensus report, the OEWG must submit annual progress reports before the UNGA. Relevant to this post, the Resolution also grants the OEWG with the power to interact with non-governmental stakeholders. The OEWG’s Organisational Session in June 2021, States agreed to a total of eleven substantive sessions, the first of which was held in the period of December 13 to December 17, 2021.
Geopolitical Background to Second Substantive Session
At the second substantive session in the last week of March 2022 discussions were hindered by ongoing geopolitical tensions arising out of the international armed conflict owing to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Cyberspace has played a strategic role within the conflict and has spanned several cyber incidents and operations. This includes strategic information campaigns and online influence operations. Moreover, the conflict has observed strategic incidents and operations which targeted government websites and extended to strategic measures critical information infrastructures across both public and private sectors. Key incidents prior to the session include a prominent attack on a satellite broadband network which affected internet availability for users across different parts of Europe.
The tensions have extended even to technical internet governance bodies like ICANN where for instance, Ukraine made unsuccessful requests to prevent Russian websites/domains from accessing the global internet. And as has been widely reported, the conflict has led to sanctions against Russian financial operators from executing cross-border transactions via globally interoperable ICT systems like the SWIFT network.
Such geopolitical realities mean that the OEWG’s progress which is rooted in consensus was adversely affected. Let us now consider a central organisational issue for the OEWG i.e. modalities of stakeholder participation.
Modalities of Stakeholder Participation
The value of rooting multistakeholderism into internet, ICT and cybersecurity governance is well documented. Most ICT systems are owned, controlled, used and/or managed by non-governmental stakeholders across the private sector and civil society. Field expertise is also largely situated outside of governments. However, under the UNGA First Committee, cybersecurity processes like the GGEs and the first OEWG have operated using state-centric, even exclusive, approaches.
UNGA Resolution 75/240 attempts to buck this trend and grants the OEWG the authority to interact with interested/relevant stakeholders from private sector, civil society and academia. For context, the first OEWG was the first cybersecurity discussion at the UN to involve some limited informal consultations between States and other stakeholders. The final substantive report, dated March 2021, even describes rich discussions and proposals from the multistakeholder community.
Despite this being an improvement upon the GGE model, experts contended that the first OEWG lacked direct or structured multistakeholder involvement. The first OEWG’s dialogue was described as ad-hoc, inconsistent and isolated. Similarly, consultation opportunities at the OEWG were largely limited to an exclusive class of accredited organisations at the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC). Stakeholders expressed concern that a repeat of this approach would exclude discipline related field experts, private operators, and other relevant stakeholders. In lieu of this, certain States, regional organisations, non-governmental stakeholders, and individual experts have shared written inputs to the OEWG’s Chair calling for the adoption of modalities which facilitate transparent, structured and formal stakeholder involvement. The proposal put forth the additional option for non-accredited organisations to indirectly engage by sharing their views with the OEWG. To further inclusivity the proposal suggested that stakeholders be allowed to participate in both formal and informal consultations through a hybrid physical/virtual format.
Unfortunately, this issue was not resolved at either the OEWG’s Organisational Session in June 2021, nor its First Substantive Session in December 2021. At these discussions Member States like the EU, Canada, France, Australia, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, UK, USA and New Zealand advocated broader, structured, transparent and formal involvement of stakeholders. The transparency component was a point of emphasis for these jurisdictions. This proposal focused on making it widely known, the grounds on which certain States objected against the inclusion of stakeholders within the OEWG. In opposition, the Sino-Russian bloc including Cuba, Iran, Pakistan and Syria opposed extended multistakeholder participation since they believe the OEWG should preserve its government-led character. Russia has proposed formal multistakeholder involvement be restricted to granting consultative status to ECOSOC accredited institutions. These States insisted that informal consultations and written inputs are sufficient means of incorporating wider stakeholder views.
Although in favour of multistakeholder involvement, India’s interventions advocated that the OEWG follow the same modalities as the first OEWG which as described earlier has been criticised on grounds of inclusivity.
Developments on Modalities at Second Substantive Session
As the issue carried forward into the second substantive session, geopolitical tensions have escalated as a result of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Statements by Australia, Canada, USA, UK, EU, France, Germany and others called upon Russia to stop using cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns. States from this bloc proposed that the OEWG’s programme of work not move forward without an agreement on stakeholder modalities. Iran contended that such a decision would undermine the legitimacy of the OEWG process. Other allies like China, Russia and Cuba argued that stakeholder participation should not come at the cost of substantial discussions. These countries cited Resolution 75/240 as not mandatorily requiring the OEWG to include stakeholders. However, the NATO and other allies of the US argued that delays to their inclusion would undercut stakeholders’ ability to meaningfully participate in the process.
Certain countries like France, Indonesia, Russia and Egypt supported an Indian proposal as a temporary workaround. India refined its earlier proposal and suggested that the OEWG continue the first OEWG’s system of informal consultations for the duration of one year while the issue of stakeholder participation was referred back to the UNGA for a final deliberation. No consensus was reached and consequently the Chair decided to suspend the issue of modalities and switched to issue-specific conversations via informal mode of discussion.
Conclusion: Final Modalities Yield Mixed Results
Three weeks after the conclusion of the second substantive session, the OEWG Chair shared a letter dated April 22, 2022 which declared consensus on the modalities of stakeholder participation at the second OEWG. These modalities will be formally adopted at the OEWG’s third substantive session in July 2022. They state that interested ECOSOC accredited NGOs can participate at the OEWG. Other interested stakeholders/organisations which are relevant to the OEWG’s mandate can apply for accreditation. They can formally participate provided Member States do not object. However, on the transparency front there appears to be a compromise. States must only share general reasons for their objection on a voluntary basis. The Chair will only share this received information with other Member States upon request. This prima facie means a stakeholder will not know why there was an objection against its participation in the OEWG process.
The actual stakeholder involvement will be carried out through two prongs. First, like the first OEWG the Chair will organise informal inter-sessional consultations between States and stakeholders. Second, accredited stakeholders can attend formal meetings of the OEWG, submit written inputs and make oral statements during a dedicated stakeholder session.
The modalities do not clarify if accredited stakeholders can participate virtually. This gap in communication is important since many stakeholders from developing/emerging countries often have limited resources and/or capacities to send contingents to these processes. While this development represents clear strides in terms of inclusivity from prior UN cybersecurity processes, as structured, the modalities could inadvertently exclude stakeholders from smaller countries who have an interest in maintaining a safe, secure and accessible cyberspace.
It remains to be seen if the international community will allocate resources in ensuring all interested stakeholders are present and active at these discussions. Moving forward, Parts 2 and 3 of this series focuses on key discussions which took place in informal mode at the Second Substantive Session of the OEWG. They describe how States (including India) view the substantial issues outlined in the OEWG’s institutional mandate. Part 3 concludes by charting out what to expect in the OEWG’s forthcoming draft of its first annual progress report for the UNGA.
As boundary-less cyberspace becomes increasingly pervasive, cyber threats continue to pose serious challenges to all nations’ economic security and digital development. For example, sophisticated attacks such as the WannaCry ransomware attack in 2017 rendered more than two million computers useless with estimated damages of up to four billion dollars. As cyber security threats continue to proliferate and evolve at an unprecedented rate, incidents of doxing, distributed denial of service (DDoS), and phishing attacks are on the rise and are being offered as services for hire. The task at hand is intensified due to the sheer number of cyber incidents in India. A closer look suggests that the challenge is exacerbated due to an outdated framework and lack of basic safeguards.
This post will examine one such framework, namely the definition of cybersecurity under the Information Technology Act, 2000 (IT Act).
Under Section 2(1)(nb) of the IT Act:
“cyber security” means protecting information, equipment, devices computer, computer resource, communication device and information stored therein from unauthorised access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction;
This post contends that the Indian definitional approach adopts a predominantly technical view of cyber security and restricts effective measures to ensure cyber-resilience between governmental authorities, industry, non-governmental organisations, and academia. This piece also juxtaposes the definition against key elements from global standards under foreign legislations and industry practices.
What is Cyber security under the IT Act?
The current definition of cyber security was adopted under the Information Technology (Amendment) Act, 2009. This amendment act was hurriedly adopted in the aftermath of the Mumbai 26/11 terrorist attacks of 2008. The definition was codified to facilitate protective functions under Sections 69B and 70B of the IT Act. Section 69B enables monitoring and collection of traffic data to enhance cyber security, prevent intrusion and spread of contaminants. Section 70B institutionalised Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT-In), to identify, forecast, issue alerts and guidelines, coordinate cyber incident response, etc. and further the state’s cyber security imperatives. Subsequently, the evolution of various institutions that perform key functions to detect, deter, protect and adapt cybersecurity measures has accelerated. However, this post argues that the current definition fails to incorporate elements necessary to contemporise and ensure effective implementation of cyber security policy.
Critique of the IT Act definition
It is clear that deterrence has failed as the volume of incidents does not appear to abate, making cyber-resilience a realistic objective that nations should strive for. The definition under the IT Act is an old articulation of protecting the referent objects of security- “information, equipment, devices computer, computer resource, communication device and information” against specific events that aim to cause harm these objects through “unauthorised access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction”.
There are a few issues with this dated articulation of cybersecurity. First, it suffers from the problem of restrictive listing as to what is being protected (aforementioned referent objects). Second, by limiting the referent objects and events within the definition it becomes prescriptive. Third, the definition does not capture the multiple, interwoven dimensions and inherent complexity of cybersecurity which includes interactions between humans and systems. Fourth, due to limited enlisting of events, similar protection is not afforded from accidental events and natural hazards to cyberspace-enabled systems (including cyber-physical systems and industrial control systems). Fifth, the definition is missing key elements – (1) It does not include technological solutions aspect of cyber security such as in the International Telecommunication Union (2009) definition that acknowledges “technologies that can be used to protect the cyber environment” and; (2) fails to incorporate the strategies, processes, and methods that will be undertaken. With key elements missing from the definition, it falls behind contemporary standards, which are addressed in the following section.
To put things in perspective, global conceptualisations of cybersecurity are undergoing a major overhaul to accommodate the increased complexity, pace, scale and interdependencies across the cyberspace and information and communication technologies (ICT) environments. In comparison, the definition under the IT Act has remained unchanged.
Although wider conceptualisations have been reflected through international and national engagements such as the National Cyber Security Policy (NCSP). For example, within the mission statement the policy document recognises technological solution elements; and interactions between humans and ICTs in cyberspace as one key rationale behind the cyber security policy.
Cybersecurity aims to counter and tackle a constantly evolving threat landscape. Although it is difficult to build consensus on a singular definition, a few key features can be agreed upon. For example, the definition must addressinterdisciplinarity inherent to cyber security, its dynamic nature and the multi-level complex ecosystem cyber security exists in. A multidisciplinary definition can aid authorities and organizations in having visibility and insight as to how new technologies can affect their risk exposure. It will further ensure that such risks are suitably mitigated. To effectuate cyber-resilience, stakeholders have to navigate governance, policy, operational, technical and legal challenges.
An inclusive definition can ensure a better collective response and bring multiple stakeholders to the table. To institutionalise greater emphasis on resilience an inclusive definition can foster cooperation between various stakeholders rather than a punitive approach that focuses on liability and criminality. An inclusive definition can enable a bottom-up approach in countering cyber security threats and systemic incidents across sectors. It can also further CERT-In’s information-sharing objectives through collaboration between stakeholders under section 70B of the IT Act.
When it comes to the regulation of technologies that embody socio-political values, contrary to popular belief that technical deliberations are objective and value-neutral, such discourse (in this case, the definition) suffers from the dominance of technical perspectives. For example, the definition of cybersecurity under the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) framework is, “the ability to protect or defend the use of cyberspace from cyber-attacks” directs the reader to the definitions ofcyberspace andcyberattack to extensively cover its various elements. However, the said definitions also has a predominantly technical lens.
Alternatively, definitions of cyber security would benefit from inclusive conceptions that factor in human engagements with systems, acknowledge interrelated dimensions and inherent complexities of cybersecurity, which involves dynamic interactions between all inter-connected stakeholders. An effective cybersecurity strategy entails a judicious mix of people, policies and technology, as well as a robust public-private partnership.
Cybersecurity is a broad term and often has highly variable subjective definitions. This hinders the formulation of appropriately responsive policy and legislative actions. As a benchmark, we borrow the Dan Purse et al. definition of cybersecurity– “the organisation and collection of resources, processes, and structures used to protect cyberspace and cyberspace-enabled systems from occurrences that misalign de jure from de facto property rights.” The benefit of this articulation is that it necessitates a deeper understanding of the harms and consequences of cyber security threats and their impact. However, this definition cannot be adopted within the Indian legal framework as (a) property rights are not recognised as fundamental rights and (b) this narrows its application to a harms and consequences standard.
Most importantly, the authors identify five common elements to form a holistic and effective approach towards defining cybersecurity. The following elements are from a literature review of 9 cybersecurity definitions are:
strategies, processes, and methods
human engagement; and
These elements highlight the complexity of the process and involve interaction between humans and systems for protecting the digital assets and themselves from various known and unknown risks. Simply put, any unauthorized access, use, disclosure, disruption, modification or destruction results in at least, a loss of functional control over the affected computer device or resource to the detriment of the person and/or legal entity in whom lawful ownership of the computer device or resource is vested. The definition codified under the IT Act only partly captures the complexity of ‘cyber security’ and its implications.
Economic interest is a core objective that necessitates cyber-resilience. Recognising the economic consequences of such attacks rather than protecting limited resources such as computer systems acknowledges the complex approaches to cybersecurity. Currently, the definition of cybersecurity is dominated by technical perspectives, and disregards other disciplines that should be ideally acting in concert to address complex challenges. Cyber-resilience can be operationalised through a renewed definition; divergent approaches within India to tackle cybersecurity challenges will act as a strategic barrier to economic growth, data flow, investments, and most importantly effective security. It will also divert resources away from more effective strategies and capacity investments. Finally, the Indian approach should evolve and stem from the threat perception, the socio-technical character of the term, and aim to bring cybersecurity stakeholders together.
Countries all over the world are seeking to preserve and strengthen their cyber-sovereignty in various ways. One popular mechanism for the same is labelled with the nebulous phrase ‘data localisation’. Data localisation refers to requirements imposed by countries which necessitate the physical storage of data within their own national boundaries. However, the degree of data localisation varies across jurisdictions. At one end of the spectrum, we have ‘controlled localisation’ that favours the free-flow of data across borders, subject to only mild restrictions. A prominent example of controlled localisation is the European Union’s (“EU”) General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).At the other end of the spectrum, we have jurisdictions like China which impose much stricter localisation requirements on businesses operating within their national boundaries.
In India data localisation has become a significant policy issue over the last few years. Various government documents have urged lawmakers to introduce a robust framework for data localisation in India. The seminal policy document in this regard is the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee report, which provided the basis for the Personal Data Protection Bill of 2019.This bill proposed a framework which would result in a significant economy-wide shift in India’s data localisation practices. At the same time, various government departments have sought to implement sector-specific data localisation requirements with different levels of success.
This blog post argues that far from being a facilitator of national security, data localisation measures may present newer threats to national security in their implementation. We seek to establish this in three steps. First, we analyse the link between India’s national security concerns and the associated objectives of data localisation. This analysis demonstrates that the mainstream narrative regarding the link between national security and data localisation is inherently flawed. Thereafter, we discuss the impact of data localisation on the economic growth objective, arguing that India’s localisation mandate fails to consider certain unintended consequences of data localisation which restrict the growth of the Indian economy. Lastly, the article argues how this adverse impact on economic growth poses a threat to India’s national security, which requires us to adopt a more holistic outlook of what constitutes national security.
II. The Mainstream Narrative
The Srikrishna Committee report underscores national security concerns as a basis for two distinct policy objectives supporting the introduction of data localisation measures. First, the report refers to the need for law enforcement agencies to have access to data which is held and controlled by data fiduciaries, stating that such access is essential for ‘… effectively [securing] national security and public safety…’ since it facilitates the detection of crime and the process of evidence gathering in general (Emphasis Added). However, experts argue that such an approach is ‘… unlikely to help India achieve objectives that actually require access to data’. Instead, the government’s objectives would be better-served by resorting to light-touch localisation requirements, such as mandating the storage of local copies of data in India while still allowing the data to be processed globally. They propose complementing these domestic measures with negotiations towards bilateral and multilateral frameworks for cross-border access to data.
Second, the report states that the prevention of foreign surveillance is ‘critical to India’s national security interests’ due to the lack of democratic oversight that can be exercised over such a process (Emphasis Added). However, we believe that data localisation fails as an effective policy measure to address this problem because notwithstanding the requirements imposed by data localisation policies, foreign governments can access locally stored data through extra-territorial means, including the use of malware and gaining the assistance of domestic entities. What is required,, is a more nuanced and well-thought-out solution which leverages the power of sophisticated data security tools.
The above analysis demonstrates that the objectives linked to national security in India’s data localisation policy can be better served through other means. Accordingly, the mainstream narrative which seeks to paint data localisation as a method of preserving national security in the sense of cyber or data security is flawed.
III. The (Unintended) Impact on the Indian Economy
The Srikrishna Committee Report ostensibly refers to the ‘… positive impact of server localisation on creation of digital infrastructure and digital industry’. Although there is no disputing the impact of the digital economy on the growth of various industries generally, the report ignores the fact that such growth has been fuelled by the free flow of cross-border data. Further, the Srikrishna Committee Report fails to consider the costs imposed by mandatory data localisation requirements on businesses which will be forced to forgo the liberty of storing their data in the most cost-effective way possible. These costs will be shifted onto unsuspecting Indian consumers.
The results of three seminal studies help illustrate the potential impact of data localisation on the Indian economy. The first study, which aimed at quantifying the loss that data localisation might cause to the economy, found that mandatory localisation requirements would reduce India’s GDP by almost 1% and that ‘… any gains stemming from data localisation are too small to outweigh losses in terms of welfare and output in the general economy’. A second study examined the impact of data localisation on individual businesses and found that due to a lack of data centres in India, such requirements would impose a 30-60% increase in operating costs on such businesses, who would be forced to store their data on local servers.The last study analysed the sector-specific impact of localisation, quantifying the loss in total factor productivity at approximately 1.35% for the communications sector, 0.5% for the business services sector, and 0.2% for the financial sector. More recent articles have also examined the prejudicial impact of data localisation on Indian start-ups, the Indian IT sector,the cyber vulnerability of small and medium enterprises, and India’s Ease of Doing Business ranking.
At this point, it also becomes important to address a common argument relied upon by proponents of data localisation, which is the fact that localisation boosts local employment, particularly for the computer hardware and software industries. Although attractive on a prima facie level, this argument has been rebutted by researchers on two grounds. First, while localisation might lead to the creation of more data centres in India, the majority of the capital goods needed for such creation will nonetheless be imported from foreign suppliers. Second, while the construction of these centres might generate employment for construction workers at a preliminary stage, their actual functioning will fail to generate substantial employment due to the nature of skilled work involved.
The primary lesson to be drawn from this analysis is that data localisation will adversely impact the growth of the Indian economy—a lesson that seems to have been ignored by the Srikrishna Committee report. Further, when discussing the impact of data localisation on economic growth in India, the report makes no reference to national security. We believe that this compartmentalisation of economic growth and national security as unrelated notions reflects an inherently myopic view of the latter.
IV. Towards a Novel Narrative
National security is a relative concept—it means different things to different people in different jurisdictions and socio-economic contexts.At the same time, a noticeable trend vis-à-vis this relative concept is that various countries have started incorporating the non-traditional factor of economic growth in their conceptions of national security. This is because the economy and national security are inextricably linked, with several interconnections and feedback loops.
Although the Indian government has made no explicit declaration in this regard, academic commentary has sought to characterise India’s economic slowdown as a national security concern in the past. We believe that this characterisation is accurate since India is a relatively low-income country and therefore, its national security strategy will necessarily depend upon the state of its economy. Further, although there have been objections surrounding a dismal defence-to-GDP ratio in India, it is believed that these objections are based on ‘trivial arithmetic’. This is because the more appropriate way of remedying the current situation is by concentrating policy efforts on increasing India’s GDP and accelerating economic growth, rather than lamenting low spends on defence.
This goal, however, requires an upgradation of India’s national security architecture. While the nuances of this reform fall outside the precise scope of this blog post, any comprehensive reform will necessarily require a change in how Indian policymakers view the notion of national security. These policymakers must realise that economic growth underpins our national security concerns and consequently, it is a factor which must not be neglected.
This notion of national security must be used by Indian policymakers to examine the economic viability of introducing any new law, including the localisation mandate. When seen through this broader lens, it becomes clear that the adverse economic impact of data localisation policies will harm India’s national security by inter alia increasing the costs of doing business in India, reducing the GDP, and prejudicing the interests of Indian start-ups and the booming Indian IT sector.
This blog post has attempted to present the link between data localisation and national security in a different light. This has been done by bringing the oft-ignored consequences of data localisation on the Indian economy to the forefront of academic debate. At the center of the article’s analysis lies an appeal to Indian policymakers to examine the notion of national security through a wider lens and consequently rethink their flawed approach of addressing national security concerns through a localisation mandate. This, in turn, will ensure sustained economic growth and provide India with the technological advantage it necessarily requires for preserving its national interests.
*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.
About the Author: The author is a 2021 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. She is currently working as a Research Associate with the Digital Media Content Regulatory Council.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. Along with a companion piece by Tejaswita Kharel, the two essays bring to a life a fascinating debate by offering competing responses to the following question:
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Anuradha Bhasin that access to the internet is an enabler of other rights, but not a fundamental right in and of itself? Why/why not? Assuming for the sake of argument, that access to the internet is a fundamental right (as held by the Kerala High Court in Faheema Shirin), would the test of reasonableness of restrictions be applied differently, i.e. would this reasoning lead to a different outcome on the constitutionality (or legality) of internet shutdowns?
Both pieces were developed in the spring semester, 2020 and do not reflect an updated knowledge of subsequent factual developments vis-a-vis COVID-19 or the ensuing pandemic.
Although it did little to hold the government accountable for its actions in Kashmir, it would be incorrect to say that the judgment of Anuradha Bhasin v. The Union of India is a complete failure. This reflection paper evaluates the lessons learnt from Anuradha Bhasin and argues in favour of access to the internet as a fundamental right, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
EXAMINING INDIA’S LEGAL POSITION ON RIGHT TO INTERNET
Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Anuradha Bhasin judgement is the fact that the Government is no longer allowed to pass confidential orders to shut down the internet for a region. Moreover, the reasons behind internet shutdown orders must not only be available for public scrutiny but also be reviewed by a Committee. The Committee will need to scrutinise the reasons for the shutdown and must benchmark it against the proportionality test. This includes evaluating the pursuit of a legitimate aim, exploration of suitable alternatives, and adoption of the least restrictive measure while also making the order available for judicial review. The nature of the restriction, its territorial and temporal scope will be relevant factors to determine whether it is proportionate to the aim sought to be achieved. The court also expanded fundamental rights to extend to the virtual space with the same protections. In this regard, the Court made certain important pronouncements on the right to freedom of speech and expression. These elements will not be discussed here as they fall outside the scope of this paper.
A few months prior in 2019, the Kerala High Court recognised access to the internet as a fundamental right. Its judgement in Faheema Sharin v. State of Kerala, the High Court addressed a host of possible issues that arise with a life online. Specifically, the High Court recognised how the internet extends individual liberty by giving people a choice to access the content of their choice, free from control of the government. The High Court relied on a United Nations General Assembly Resolution to note that the internet “… facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally, thereby being an important tool to facilitate the promotion of the right to education…” – a fact that has only strengthened in value during the pandemic. The Kerala High Court held that since the Right to Education is an integral part of the right to life and liberty enshrined under Article 21 of the Constitution, access to the internet becomes an inalienable right in and of itself. The High Court also recognised the value of the internet to the freedom of speech and expression to say that the access to the internet is protected under Art. 19(1)(a) of the Constitution and can be restricted on grounds consistent with Art. 19(2).
ARGUING IN FAVOUR OF RIGHT TO INTERNET
In the pandemic, a major reason why some of us have any semblance of freedom and normalcy in our lives is because of the internet. At a time when many aspects of our day to day lives have moved online, including education, healthcare, shopping for essential services, etc. – the fundamental importance of the internet should not even be up for debate. The Government also uses the internet to disseminate essential information. In 2020 it used a contact tracing app (Aarogya Setu) which relied on the internet for its functioning. There also exists a WhatsApp chatbot to give accurate information about the pandemic. The E-Vidya Programme was launched by the Government to allow schools to become digital. In times like this, the internet is not one of the means to access constitutionally guaranteed services, it is the only way (Emphasis Added).
In this context, the right of access to the internet should be read as part of the Right to Life and Liberty under Art. 21. Therefore, internet access should be subject to restrictions only based on procedures established by law. To better understand what shape such restrictions could take, lawmakers and practitioners can seek guidance from another recent addition to the list of rights promised under Art. 21- the right to privacy. The proportionality test was laid down in the Puttaswamy I judgment and reiterated in Puttaswamy II (“Aadhaar Judgement”). In the Aadhar Judgement when describing the proportionality for reasonable restrictions, the Supreme Court stated –
“…a measure restricting a right must, first, serve a legitimate goal (legitimate goal stage); it must, secondly, be a suitable means of furthering this goal (suitability or rational connection stage); thirdly, there must not be any less restrictive but equally effective alternative (necessity stage); and fourthly, the measure must not have a disproportionate impact on the right-holder (balancing stage).” –
This excerpt from Puttaswamy II provides as a defined view on the proportionality test upheld by the court in Anuradha Bhasin. This means that before passing an order to shut down the internet the appropriate authority must assess whether the order aims to meet a goal which is of sufficient importance to override a constitutionally protected right. More specifically, does the goal fall under the category of reasonable restrictions as provided for in the Constitution. Next, there must be a rational connection between this goal and the means of achieving it. The appropriate authority must ensure that an alternative method cannot achieve this goal with just as much effectiveness. The authority must ensure that the method being employed is the least restrictive. Lastly, the internet shutdown must not have a disproportionate impact on the right holder i.e. the citizen, whose right to freedom of expression or right to health is being affected by the shutdown. These reasons must be put down in writing and be subject to judicial review.
Based on the judgment in Faheema Sharin, an argument can be made how the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of access to the internet, not created it. The reliance of the Government on becoming digital with e-governance and digital payment platforms shows an intention to herald the country in a world that has more online presence than ever before.
People who are without access to the internet right now* – people in Kashmir, who have access to only 2G internet on mobile phones, or those who do not have the socio-economic and educational means to access the internet – are suffering. Not only are they being denied access to education, the lack of access to updated information about a disease about which we are still learning could prove fatal. Given the importance of the internet at this time of crisis, and for the approaching future, where people would want to avoid being in crowded classrooms, marketplaces, or hospitals- access to the internet should be regarded as a fundamental right.
This is not to say that the Court’s recognition of this right can herald India into a new world. The recognition of the right to access the internet will only be a welcome first step towards bringing the country into the digital era. The right to access the internet should also be made a socio-economic right. Which, if implemented robustly, will have far reaching consequences such as ease of social mobility, increased innovation, and fostering of greater creativity.
*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.
About the Author: The author is a 2021 graduate of National Law University, Delhi. She is currently working as a lawyer in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her interests lie in the area of digital rights, freedom of speech and expression and constitutional law.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of the Reflection Series showcasing exceptional student essays from CCG-NLUD’s Seminar Course on Technology & National Security Law. Along with a companion piece by Shreyasi Tripathi, the two essays bring to a life a fascinating debate by offering competing responses to the following question:
Do you agree with the Supreme Court’s pronouncement in Anuradha Bhasin that access to the internet is an enabler of other rights, but not a fundamental right in and of itself? Why/why not? Assuming for the sake of argument, that access to the internet is a fundamental right (as held by the Kerala High Court in Faheema Shirin), would the test of reasonableness of restrictions be applied differently, i.e. would this reasoning lead to a different outcome on the constitutionality (or legality) of internet shutdowns?
Both pieces were developed in the spring semester, 2020 and do not reflect an updated knowledge of subsequent factual developments vis-a-vis COVID-19 or the ensuing pandemic.
The term ‘internet shutdown’ can be defined as an “intentional disruption of internet or electronic communications, rendering them inaccessible or effectively unusable, for a specific population or within a location, often to exert control over the flow of information”.1 It has become a tool used by States against residents of the country in question when they are faced with some imminent threat to law and order or a certain breakdown of law and order. It is used with the belief that a blanket shutdown of the Internet helps restrict misinformation, spreading of fake news, incitement of violence, etc. that could take place.
ANURADHA BHASIN JUDGEMENT: INTERNET AS ENABLER OF FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS ENSHRINED UNDER THE CONSTITUTION OF INDIA
Due to the suspension of mobile and broadband internet services in Jammu and Kashmir on August 4, 2019 before the repeal of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, a petition was filed at the Supreme Court by Anuradha Bhasin (a journalist at Kashmir Times). The petition challenged the Government’s curb of media freedom in Jammu and Kashmir as a result of the blanket internet and communications shutdown. On 10th January 2020, the Supreme Court’s judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India, held that the internet has been deemed as a means to realise fundamental rights under Article 19 of the Constitution. The Court’s decision specifically applied to the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to carry on trade or businesses.
The Court did not explore or answer the question of whether access to the internet by itself is a fundamental right since it was not a contention by the counsels. However, the Court did state that since fundamental rights could be affected by the measures applied by authorities (which in this case was an internet shutdown), a lawful measure which could restrict these fundamental rights must be proportionate to the goal.
One reading of the Supreme Court’s decision in Anuradha Bhasin is that the case could act as an enabler which legitimises government-mandated internet shutdowns. Nevertheless, the Court does explicitly hold that the curtailment of fundamental rights affected by internet access restrictions must be proportionate. In pursuance of this restrictive measures need to be the least restrictive in nature. However, determining what constitutes the least restrictive measure is a subjective question and would vary on a case by case basis. There is no guarantee that internet shutdowns would not be the opted measure. .
Critiquing the Rationale of the Anuradha Bhasin Judgement
It is important to investigate why the Court was hesitant to not deem internet access as a fundamental right. One major reason could be due to the fact that access to the internet is not possible for all the citizens of India in the current situation in any case. At the time of writing this paper, approximately half of India’s population has access to and uses the internet. Where such a visible ‘Digital Divide’ exists, i.e. when half of the Indian population cannot access the Internet and the government has not yet been able to provide such universal access to the internet, it would not be feasible for the Court to hold that the access to internet is in fact a fundamental right.
If the Court were to hold that access to the internet is a fundamental right in the current situation, there would be a question of what internet access means ? Is access to the internet simply access to an internet connection? Or does it also include the means required in order to access the internet in the first place?
If it is just the first, then deeming access to the internet as a fundamental right would be futile since in order to access an internet connection, electronic devices (e.g. laptops, smartphones, etc.) are required. At a purely fiscal level, it would be improbable for the State to fulfil such a Constitutional mandate. Moreover, access to the internet would be a fundamental right only to those who have the privilege of obtaining the means to access the internet. The burden on the State would be too high since the State would be expected to not just provide internet connection but also the electronics which would be required in order to access the same. In either case, it does not seem feasible for access to the internet to be deemed as a fundamental right due to the practical constraint of India’s immense digital divide.
RIGHT TO INTERNET FOR CURRENT AND FUTURE CHALLENGES
At a future point where it is feasible for more people to access the internet in India (especially in rural/remote areas), it may be appropriate to deem access to the internet as a fundamental right. However, at this juncture to argue that the access to internet is a fundamental right (knowing that it is primarily accessible to more privileged segments) would be an assertion anchored on privilege. Therefore, as important as the internet is for speech and expression, education, technology, etc. the fact that it is not accessible to a lot of people is something for policymakers and wider stakeholders to consider.
This is especially important to look at in the context of COVID-19. Lockdowns and movement restrictions have increased remote work and accelerated online education. In order to work or study online, people must have access to both devices and the internet.
In this context a UNICEF Report (August 2020)observed that only 24% of Indian households had internet connection to access education and in November 2020 an undergraduate student died as a result of suicide since she was unable to afford a laptop. This provides macro and micro evidence of the blatant digital divide in India. Hence, it is not feasible to deem the right to access the internet as a fundamental right.
In any case, if we were to assume that the right to access the internet was a fundamental right as what was held on 19 September 2019 by the Kerala High Court in Faheema Shirin R.K v. State of Kerala, the issue of whether internet shutdowns are legal or not would still be contended. Article 19(2) provides certain conditions under which the right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) can be reasonably restricted. Similarly, Article 19(6) of the Constitution provides that the right to carry on trade and business can be reasonably restricted in the interest of the general public. If access to the internet would be deemed as a fundamental right, it would be necessary to look at the scope of Articles 19(2) and 19(6) through a different lens. Nevertheless, such alteration would not yield a different application of the law. In essence, the Government’s restrictions on internet access would operate in the same way.
It is highly likely that Internet shutdowns would still be constitutional. However, there could be a change in the current stance to the legality of internet shutdowns. Situations wherein internet shutdowns would be legal may become narrower. There may even be a need for specific legislation for clarity and for compliance with the constitutional obligations.
Due to COVID-19, many people are unable to access education or work in the same way that was done before. Even courts are functioning online and with that the necessity to access the internet has never been stronger. The court in Anuradha Bhasin held that the internet was an enabler to rights under Articles 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g). However, now with the added scope for the necessity to be able to use the internet as a medium of accessing education and as a medium to access justice (which has been recognised as a fundamental right under Article 21 and 14), lawmakers and Courts must evaluate whether the rising dependency on the access internet would in itself be a reason for internet access becomes crystallised as a fundamental right.
*Views expressed in the blog are personal and should not be attributed to the institution.
In February 2022, CCG-NLUD will commence the latest edition of its Seminar Course on Technology and National Security Law and Policy (“the Seminar Course”). The Seminar Course is offered to interested 4th and 5th year students who are enrolled in the B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) programme at the National Law University, Delhi. The course is set against the backdrop of the rapidly evolving landscape of international security issues, and concomitant challenges and opportunities presented by emerging technologies.
National security law, viewed as a discrete discipline of study, emerges and evolves at the intersection of constitutional law; domestic criminal law and its implementation in surveillance; counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations; international law including the Law of Armed Conflict (LOAC) and international human rights law; and foreign policy within the ever-evolving contours of international politics.
Innovations and technological advancements in cyberspace and next generation technologies serve as a jumping off point for the course since they have opened up novel national security issues at the digital frontier. New technologies have posed new legal questions, introduced uncertainty within settled legal doctrines, and raised several legal and policy concerns. Understanding that law schools in India have limited engagement with cyber and national security issues, this Seminar Course attempts to fill this knowledge gap.
The Course was first designed and launched by CCGNLUD in 2018. In 2019, the Seminar Course was re-designed with the help of expert consultations to add new dimensions and debates surrounding national security and emerging technologies. The redesign was meant to ground the course in interdisciplinary paradigms in a manner which allows students to study the domain through practical considerations like military and geo-political strategy. The revised Seminar Course engages more deeply with third world approaches which helps situate several issues within the rubric of international relations and geopolitics. This allows students to holistically critique conventional precepts of the international world order.
The revamped Seminar Course was relaunched in the spring semester of 2020. Owing to the sudden countrywide lockdown in the wake of COVID-19, most sessions shifted online. However, we managed to navigate these exigencies with the support of our allies and the resolve of our students.
In adopting an interdisciplinary approach, the Seminar Course delves into debates at the intersection of national security law and policy, and emerging technologies, with an emphasis on cybersecurity and cyberwarfare. Further, the Course aims to:
Recognize and develop National Security Law as a discrete discipline of legal studies, and
Impart basic levels of cybersecurity awareness and inculcate good information security practices among tomorrow’s lawyers.
The Technology and National Security Seminar Reflection Paper Series (“The Reflection Series”) is meant to serve as a mirror of key takeaways and student learnings from the course. It will be presented as a showcase of exceptional student essays which were developed and informed by classroom discussions during the 2020 and 2021 editions of the Seminar Course. The Reflection Series also offers a flavour of the thematic and theoretical approaches the Course adopts in order to stimulate structured discussion and thought among the students. A positive learning from these two editions is that students demonstrated considerable intellectual curiosity and had the freedom to develop their own unique understanding and solutions to contemporary issues—especially in the context of cyberspace and the wider ICT environments. Students were prescribed atypical readings and this allowed them to consider typical issues in domains like international law through the lens of developing countries. Students were allowed to revisit the legitimacy of traditional sources of authority or preconceived notions and assumptions which underpin much of the orthodox thinking in geostrategic realms like national security.
CCG-NLUD presents the Reflection Series with a view to acknowledge and showcase some of the best student pieces we received and evaluated for academic credit. We thank our students for their unwavering support and fruitful engagement that makes this course better and more impactful.
Starting January 5, 2022, select reflection papers will be published three times a week. This curated series is meant to showcase different modules and themes of engagement which came up during previous iterations of the course. It will demonstrate that CCG-NLUD designs the course in a way which covers the broad spectrum of issues which cover topics at the intersection of national security and emerging technology. Specifically, this includes a showcase of (i) conceptual theory and strategic thinking, (ii) national security through an international and geostrategic lens, and (iii) national security through a domestic lens.
Here is a brief glimpse of what is to come in the coming weeks:
Reimagining Philosophical and Theoretical Underpinnings of National Security and Military Strategy (January 5-12, 2022)
Our first reflection paper is written by Kushagra Kumar Sahai (Class of ’20) in which he evaluates whether Hugo Grotius, commonly known as the father of international law owing to his seminal work on the law of war and peace, is better described as an international lawyer or a military strategist for Dutch colonial expansion.
Our second reflection paper is a piece written by Manaswini Singh (Class of ’20). Manaswini provides her take on Edward Luttwak’s critique of Sun Tzu’s Art of War as a book of ‘stratagems’ or clever tricks, rather than a book of strategy. In a separate paper (third entry), Manaswini also undertakes the task of explaining the relationship between technological developments and the conduct of war through the lens of the paradoxical logic of strategy.
Our fourth reflection paper is by Animesh Choudhary (Class of ’21) on Redefining National Security. Animesh, in his submission, points out several fallacies in the current understanding of national security and pushes for “Human Security” as an alternative and more appropriate lens for understanding security issues in the 21st century.
International Law, Emerging Technologies and Cyberspace (January 14-24, 2022)
In our fifth reflection paper, Siddharth Gautam (Class of ’20) explores whether cyber weapons could be subjected to any regulation under contemporary rules of international law.
Our sixth reflection paper is written by Drishti Kaushik (Class of ’21) on The Legality of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (“LAWS”). In this piece, she first presents an analysis of what constitutes LAWS. She then attempts to situate modern systems of warfare like LAWS and its compliance with traditional legal norms as prescribed under international humanitarian laws.
Our seventh reflection paper is written by Karan Vijay (Class of ’20) on ‘Use of Force in modern times: Sisyphus’ first world ‘boulder’. Karan examines whether under international law, a mere threat of use of force by a state against another state would give rise to a right of self-defence. In another piece (eighth entry), Karan writes on the authoritative value of interpretations of international law expressed in texts like the Tallinn Manual with reference to Article 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice i.e. traditional sources of international law.
Our ninth reflection paper is written by Neeraj Nainani (Class of ’20), who offers his insights on the Legality of Foreign Influence Operations (FIOs) under International law. Neeraj’s paper, queries the legality of the FIOs conducted by adversary states to influence elections in other states through the use of covert information campaigns (such as conspiracy theories, deep fake videos, “fake news”, etc.) under the established principles of international law.
Our tenth reflection paper is written by Anmol Dhawan (Class of ’21). His contribution addresses the International Responsibility for Hackers-for-Hire Operations. He introduces us to the current legal issues in assigning legal responsibility to states for hacker-for-hire operations under the due diligence obligation in international law.
Domestic Cyber Law and Policy (January 28- February 4, 2022)
Our eleventh and twelfth reflection papers are two independent pieces written by Bharti (Class of ’20)and Kumar Ritwik (Class of ’20). These pieces evaluate whether the Government of India’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic could have benefited if the Government had invoked emergency provisions under the Constitution. Since the two pieces take directly opposing views, they collectively product a fascinating debate on the tradeoffs of different approaches.
Our thirteenth and fourteenth reflection papers have been written by Tejaswita Kharel (Class of ’20) and Shreyasi (Class of ’20). Both Tejaswita and Shreyasi interrogate whether the internet (and therefore internet access) is an enabler of fundamental rights, or whether access to the internet is a fundamental right unto itself. Their analysis rely considerably on the Indian Supreme Court’s judgement in Anuradha Bhasin v. Union of India which related to prolonged government mandated internet restrictions in Kashmir.
We will close our symposium with a reflection paper by Romit Kohli (Class of ’21), on Data Localisation and National Security: Flipping the Narrative. He argues that the mainstream narrative around data localisation in India espouses a myopic view of national security. His contribution argues the need to go beyond this mainstream narrative and constructs a novel understanding of the link between national security and data localisation by taking into consideration the unintended and oft-ignored consequences of the latter on economic development.
This is the second post of a two-part series which examines India’s participation in UN-affiliated processes and debates on ICTs and international security.
The first part offered an overview of how ideological divisions are shaping UN debates around the international framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. In this post, the author evaluates India’s stated positions on ICTs and international security at forums affiliated with the UN.
As our digital transformation story has accelerated, Indian authorities have proactively worked on domestic laws, regulations and policies to govern digital and ICT domains. Prominent examples include its net neutrality regime; the 2021 intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics regulations; a soon to be enacted data protection law; and the National Cyber Security Policy, 2013, which is undergoing an overhaul. When it comes to institutional responses, India has, inter alia, operationalised a nodal Computer Emergency Response Team (“CERT-In”), sector specific CERTs, the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (“NCIIPC”) to secure critical information infrastructures (“CIIs”), and the National Cyber Security Coordinator within the country’s National Security Council Secretariat.
Conversely, India’s participation at international cybersecurity processes like the United Nations’ Group of Governmental Experts (“GGEs”) and the Open-ended Working Groups (“OEWG”) remains less developed. It does not reflect its status as a digital deciding swing State in cyber norms processes. Some describe it as lacking cohesion, without substantive or long term commitment to advance an international agenda. They have further characterised India’s position as one of silence, ambiguity and prioritising immediate national interest. India has even shied away from supporting multistakeholder led norms packages on international cybersecurity such as the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. And this perceived positional ambiguity is further reinforced by the fact that it supported both Russia’s proposal for the first OEWG and the US’ proposal for the sixth GGE. India has also endorsed Russia’s proposal for an ad-hoc committee for a cybercrime convention under the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues.
Indian Statements on International Security and ICTs
Given that India has an opportunity to assume an internationally significant role in international cybersecurity and norms related debates under processes like the 2nd OEWG, this post attempts to extract and infer meaning from India’s seemingly inconsistent and ambiguous positions. This involves an analysis of publicly available evidence of India’s participation in working groups and other forums within the UN. Subsequent takeaways reflect a composite examination of:
India’s 2015 Comments to UNGA Resolution 70/237, which endorsed the GGE-developed international framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace;
India’s 2020 comments on the initial pre-draft of the OEWG’s report. These comments have been taken down from the OEWG website.
February 2021 comments/remarks and proposed edits (January 2021) by the Government of India on the zero draft of the OEWG’s final substantive report.
India’s statement at the UNSC Open Debate on international cybersecurity (June 2021).
While the Indian delegation participated in the first substantive session of the 2nd OEWG in December 2021, its interventions are, as of writing, unavailable on the OEWG’s website. Based on an overview of the aforementioned statements five key trends emerge.
First, the Indian Government appears to prefer state-led solutions over multistakeholderism to cybersecurity. While broadly highlighting the importance of multistakeholderism within internet governance, India’s 2015 submission at the UNGA has argued that governments play a primary role in cybersecurity since it falls within the umbrella of ‘national security’. India has also made explicit recommendations at the OEWG negotiations to remove references to “human-centric” approaches to replace them with terms like “peace and stability”. Such statements convey a top-down outlook to ICT and cybersecurity policy. India prefers stakeholders play a secondary role in cybersecurity policy as stated in its intervention at the UNSC. The Indian Foreign Secretary, at the UNSC, opined that stakeholders can play an important role in supporting international cooperation on cybersecurity.
Such positions are consistent with the Indian Government’s disposition that technology environments should adhere to the rule of law and policies framed by appropriate government authorities. Even so, domestically, the Indian government has demonstrated a willingness to participate in multistakeholder dialogue (at forums like India IGF) and seek stakeholder inputs on related policy matters.
Second, India aims to bring content, behaviour and speech over social media and the wider internet within the scope of international cyber security. When discussing the scope of cyber/information security, India has repeatedly referred to cyber terrorism, terrorist content, virulent propaganda, inciting speech, disinformation, terror financing and recruitment activities, and general misuse of social media. This is of course consistent with its domestic policy stance on stricter regulations for social media intermediaries under the 2021 intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code. India has even called for international dialogue and cooperation to counter terror propaganda, remove content and real time support with investigations. It has called upon the international community to recognise cyber terrorism as a special class of cyber incident which requires stronger international cooperation. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the OEWG may be receptive to broadening the scope of information security to include issues relating to online speech and social media. This is also evidenced by the fact that several States have raised similar issues during the first substantive session of the 2nd OEWG in December 2021.
Third, India appears to prefer an internationally binding rules-based framework on ICTs and cyberspace. This is evident from both India’s 2021 submission to the OEWG, and its 2021 intervention at the UNSC’s open debate on cybersecurity. These submissions confirm that India appears open to a treaty/convention-based pathway to international cybersecurity. At the same time, during the 2021 OEWG negotiations India categorically requested deleting a paragraph which refers to a 2015 proposal for international code of conduct for information security. The 2015 proposal was tabled by UN Member States who are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (“SCO”). Notably, India joined the SCO a few months after the bloc tabled its 2015 proposal. The SCO’s proposal was largely steered under Russian and Chinese guidance.
Fourth, Indian interventions have laid heavy emphasis on supply chain security of ICT products and services. India’s interventions focus on two key aspects. First is an emphasis on cybersecurity resilience and hygiene among SMEs and children. The reference to SMEs can be considered an expression of its economic aspirations via digital transformation. Second, India has called for greater international cooperation on matters surrounding trusted ICT products and services, and trusted suppliers of such products and services. This includes mitigating the introduction of harmful hidden functions like backdoors within ICT products and services which can compromise essential networks. To this end, India has even called for the introduction of a new cyber norm relating to a standard for essential security in cyberspace. This position appears to align itself with recent mandatory testing and certification regulations for telecommunications equipment, and a more recent national security directive passed by Indian telecom authorities in response to growing concerns of Chinese presence in Indian telecom and ICT systems. Under this Directive, Indian telecom authorities have launched the ‘Trusted Telecom Portal’ which aims to ensure that Indian telecom networks only comprise equipment which are deemed to be ‘trusted products’ from ‘trusted sources’. Recent reports also reveal that the Indian Government is in the process of establishing a unified national cyber security task force which will set up a specialised sub department to focus on cyber threats in the telecom sector.
Lastly, on the applicability of international law to States’ use of ICTs—despite its participation in five out of six UN GGEs and the first OEWG—India has yet to substantively articulate an extensive position on this topic. Instead, it has made broader calls for non-binding, voluntary guidance from the international community on the application of key concepts within international humanitarian law like distinction, necessity, proportionality and humanity within the context of ICTs. India’s most animated interventions have pertained to jurisdiction and sovereignty. To be clear, it has not engaged on whether sovereignty is a principle or a rule of international law. Instead, it has called on the international community to reimagine sovereignty and jurisdiction—where a new technical basis (beyond territoriality) can allow States to effectively govern and secure cyberspace.
One such basis for sovereignty that India put forth before the OEWG relates to data ownership and sovereignty. It purports that such a philosophical underpinning would endorse people’s right to informational privacy online. Yet, these positions reflect and seek to legitimise wider trends in digital and ICT policymaking in India. This includes proposals to restrict cross-border data flows for different purposes and its challenges with carrying out law enforcement investigations owing to lethargic international cooperation via the MLAT frameworks.
India’s current engagement with international cybersecurity issues serves as a mirror for India’s domestic political economy and immediate national interests. Given that it occupies a pivotal position as a digital swing state with the second largest internet user base in the world, India could have the geopolitical heft to steer the conversation away from ideological fault lines—and towards more substantive avenues.
However, in order to do this, it must adopt a more internationalised agenda while negotiating in these cyber norms processes. Since it is still early days when it comes to substantive discussions at the 2nd OEWG, and negotiations at other forthcoming processes are yet to commence, the time may be ripe for India to start formulating a more cohesive strategy in how it engages with international cyber norms processes.
To this end, Indian leadership could approach the forthcoming National Cyber Security Strategy as a jumping off point from via which it can refine the Government’s normative outlook to matters relating to international cybersecurity, international law and responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. The forthcoming strategy could also help the Government of India define how it collaborates with other States and non-governmental stakeholders. Finally, it could help identify domestic laws, policies and institutions that require reform to keep pace with international developments.
Editorial Note: This is a two-part series, which examines India’s participation in UN-affiliated processes and debates on ICTs and international security.
Part 1 provides an overview of the ideological divisions that are shaping UN debates around the international framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. In Part 2, the author will critique India’s stated positions on ICTs and international security at forums affiliated with the UN.
Introduction: The International Character of Cyber Threats
Earlier this month, the United Nations General Assembly’s (“UNGA”) First Committee on Disarmament and International Security (“First Committee”) convened Member-States for the first substantive session of its second Open-Ended Work Group (“OEWG”) on security of, and in the use of, information and communication technologies (“ICTs”). The 2nd OEWG serves as the latest working group under the aegis of the UNGA First Committee on themes relating to ICTs and international cybersecurity. It is notable that in that same week another major cyber vulnerability, in a widely used logging library—the Apache Log4j flaw—threatening global computer systems, came to light. This vulnerability has been described as a major software supply chain flaw which can be used to remotely compromise hundreds of millions of vulnerable devices globally.
Experts are calling it a cyber pandemic and exploits are already targeting corporate networks globally. More concerning is the fact that nation State-backed hackers have reportedly begun experimenting and launching malicious operations to exploit the flaw. Along with recent incidents like WannaCry, NotPetya, SolarWinds, Colonial Pipeline and the Microsoft Exchange Server, such trends typify a rapidly evolving and increasingly scalable cyber threat landscape which emerge from heterogenous sources. These include States which use ICT capabilities to advance military or political objectives, States-sponsored hacking groups, mercenary technology vendors (developing tools like spyware), and other criminal and/or terrorist non-State actors. To combat these trends the international community must prioritise cyber diplomacy, international cooperation, assistance and baseline harmonisation of jurisdictional efforts as essential prerequisites.
However, this is challenging since States often have diverging political, economic, developmental and military objectives. Therefore, in order to fulfil the core objective of a peaceful and stable cyberspace, international dialogue on ICT security must successfully navigate both peacetime and conflict paradigms. This includes working around innate complexities conferred via inter-State cyber conflicts. One such challenge relates to the operationalisation of the law of armed conflict within the cyberspace. Keeping these challenges in mind, this post presents an overview of ongoing cyber diplomacy efforts at the UN towards building an international legal and normative framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. It then evaluates how ideological divisions between countries pose challenges to international consensus and multilateralism.
The UN, Cybersecurity and the Framework for Responsible State Behaviour
Against the aforementioned backdrop, the second OEWG commences the next generation of deliberations on the States’ use of ICTs in the context of international peace and security. This Working Group was constituted in accordance with a UNGA resolution (75/240) dated December 31, 2020 and is set to run till 2025. It is open to participation from all 193 UN Member States, and the OEWG’s Chair is in the midst of determining the extent and mechanisms of multistakeholder participation. Both this and the first iteration of the OEWG involve more inclusive participation of the international community as compared to previous Groups of Governmental Experts (“GGEs”) on ICT security, which had only 15 to 25 participating States.
Given the exponential innovation trajectories of ICT environments and the extended operational timelines, it will be tall order for the 2nd OEWG to fulfil its mandate to identify existing and potential threats to information security. Yet, it is not starting from scratch. Concerted prior work at the GGEs and OEWG, along with subsequent consensus at the UNGA has yielded an international framework for responsible state behaviour towards international cybersecurity. The framework comprises four distinct yet complementary pillars. These pillars include:
International law, including the UN Charter along with existing principles of international law, as it applies to States’ use of ICTs. This was most recently elaborated in the May 2021 consensus report of the 6th GGE.;
Politically determined cyber norms which entail voluntary and non-binding norms, rules and principles of responsible State behaviour during peacetime. The norms, inter alia, include interstate cooperation like exchange of information and threat intelligence; attribution of ICT incidents, respecting human rights; protecting critical infrastructures; securing ICT supply chains; enabling ICT vulnerability disclosures; preventing the misuse of ICTs for cybercrime and international wrongful acts; etc. Cyber norms are meant to promote cooperation and increase predictability, reduce risks of misperception and escalation in the cyberspace, and serve as a first step to the eventual formation of customary international law in the cyberspace.
The other two pillars are confidence building measures and capacity building. These aim to enhance interstate transparency, international and institutional (technical and policy) cooperation, systematise international assistance to implement the voluntary cyber norms framework, and create a baseline of competence and response capabilities across Member States.
Prima facie these pillars reflect a comprehensive approach in tackling the wide-ranging threats in cyberspace. Yet it does not reflect geopolitical divisions which are emerging within different country blocs. Since cybersecurity’s prominence within the broader scheme of international peace and security continues to increase, it is important to track this aspect of international cyberspace cooperation.
Ideological Divisions in International Cybersecurity Processes
Ideological divisions within international cybersecurity processes often reflect similar geographic groupings. One side comprises the US, UK, Estonia and other NATO allies. On the other end of the spectrum, we observe a Sino-Russian grouping which also includes countries like Cuba and Iran. This section highlights four main ways in which ideological divisions are shaping the international cyber diplomacy processes.
Goal of Dialogue: Legally Binding Agreement or Voluntary Politically-determined Norms-based Framework?
Differences begin at the most fundamental levels of implementation. Consider the means of operationalising the international framework for state responsibility in the use of ICTs. Since the late 90s, the Russian bloc has made multiple proposals for international work towards a binding treaty/convention on international cybersecurity and cybercrime. Such proposals advance Sino-Russian objectives of embedding core principles of internet sovereignty and state-primacy within a rule-based framework of international ICT policy. Interests around sovereignty may have also motivated the Russian proposal to set up the first UN OEWG on ICT Security, which opened up conversations in cybersecurity to all UN Member States. While the OEWG furthers openness, transparency and inclusivity towards norm formulation, the push for expansion in participation is perhaps motivated by an ability to bring more countries with similar ideological positions into the discussions.
Among other things, their inclusion can create greater momentum to revisit, expand, or create new norms for State activities in cyberspace. The US and NATO bloc has strongly opposed the need for an international treaty based framework citing that such an approach could risk allowing States to negotiate and dilute core principles like openness, interoperability, multistakeholderism and respect for human rights. At a secondary level, it could also lead to greater fetters and regulation of international transnational ICT/internet corporations—which tend to be concentrated in certain jurisdictions.
Disputes on Applicability of International Law
A prominent example here is the failed negotiations at the 5th UN GGE in 2017. An important point of contention related to whether and how international law—especially international humanitarian law—applies to the cyberspace. In broad terms, NATO allies advocated that the principles of use of force, self-defence, and in situations of conflict, principles of international humanitarian law, should apply to the cyberspace. However, Cuba, serving as a front for the other bloc, opposed this. They argued that this would serve as a tacit endorsement of certain cyber operations and would incentivise escalation/militarisation in the cyberspace. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and it cost the international community consensus at the 5th GGE.
Procedural Mechanisms and Modalities of Dialogue
Since 2017, both the 1st OEWG and 6th GGE successfully adopted consensus reports in March and May 2021 respectively. While they build on prior GGE consensus reports especially the 2013 and 2015 reports, the aforementioned disputes demonstrate the fragility of consensus on international cybersecurity at the UN.
Even in the run-up to the 2nd OEWG’s first substantive session (December 2021), States have had disagreements on the modalities of engagement. These include whether the OEWG should have broad conversations on all issues simultaneously between Member States, or if the Chair should set up issue-specific thematic subgroups for different aspects of international cybersecurity, etc.
Definitional Scope of Key Concepts including “Information” Security
Fundamental differences on key concepts like minimum identifiable standards of inter-State conduct, verification, evidence gathering, attribution and accountability among both State and non-State actors, threaten the international framework for peace and stability in cyberspace. A major point of contention which could emerge within the 2nd OEWG relates to its mandate on identifying existing and potential threats to information security. In contrast to the GGEs, the OEWG is increasing its focus on disinformation, defamation, incitement, propaganda, terrorist content, and other online speech/media. This can be discerned from the 1st OEWG’s final substantive report, the Chair’s Summary, and UNGA Res/75/240. The OEWG’s eventual scope of “information security” will also reveal to what extent international policymakers aim to securitise different infrastructure and online public spaces within ICT environments. Given the implications that this could have on principles like openness, interoperability, and people’s fundamental freedoms and human rights, dialogue on this front will be important to track.
Conclusion: The Importance of Digital Swing States
Substantive fissures threaten multilateral international cooperation in cybersecurity. This risk manifested once with the operation of parallel processes at the 6th GGE and the 1st OEWG. Similar risks of fragmentation could emerge during the 2nd OEWG’s tenure—since there is already an adhoc committee on a cybercrime convention which will commence substantive discussions under the UNGA’s Third Committee in January 2022. States including France, Egypt and others have also made a proposal for an action oriented Programme of Actionto advance responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace.
Given these risks, commentators observe that the role of swing states is integral for international cyber diplomacy to steer the conversations towards more substantive pathways. One such swing State is India. The next post of this two part series will explore India’s engagement with UN-affiliated processes and debates on cybersecurity over time. Through this, we gain greater clarity on India’s definitional approach to cybersecurity, views on multistakeholderism vis-a-vis cybersecurity, supply chain security, and sovereignty in ICT environments.
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.)
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 inour 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 thecommittee 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
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.
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).
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 hadargued 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.
 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.