Towards a Data Protection Framework (CCG Privacy Law Series)

Smitha and I are writing a series of papers on a data protection law for India, based on our research. We hope that our discussion of the options before us and their relative merits and demerits will help other engage with these difficult questions in a nuanced manner.

The first paper sets out the context for the data protection law. It discusses the
reasons and purpose for regulation and what specifically will be regulated.
It also discusses who will be regulated, since this is important while
considering the regulatory strategies to use while implementing the data
protection principles. It is available here.

Advertisements

TRAI releases Regulations enforcing Net Neutrality, prohibits Differential Pricing

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has come out with a set of regulations explicitly prohibiting differential pricing for data services in India.

3. Prohibition of discriminatory tariffs.— (1) No service provider shall offer or charge discriminatory tariffs for data services on the basis of content.

(2) No service provider shall enter into any arrangement, agreement or contract, by whatever name called, with any person, natural or legal, that has the effect of discriminatory tariffs for data services being offered or charged to the consumer on the basis of content

TRAI recently concluded a public consultation process regarding differential pricing in data services (resources). The consultation paper covered all differently-priced or zero-rated services offered through data. The process has witnessed tremendous public participation, with a spirited campaign by Internet activists (Savetheinternet.in) and a counter-campaign by Facebook where it garnered support through users by using the narrative of connecting those who have no access (https://www.facebook.com/savefreebasics).

CCG submitted a formal response as part of this process, which you can read here, and filed an additional counter-comment signed by ten different civil society and research organizations.

The consultation process also involved a public discussion on the questions raised, where the usual suspects were all present – telecom companies arguing for differential pricing, and internet activists against. Also present were startup- and user- representatives.

Facebook’s telecom partner for carrying the Free Basics platform in India —Reliance Communications — was then instructed by TRAI to put a hold on rolling out Free Basics until they came up with a clear position on differential pricing and net neutrality. The regulator later confirmed that they received a compliance report to this effect as well. Facebook had been aggressively pursuing its campaign to collect support in favour of its platform for the entire duration of the public consultation.

TRAI has clarified that these regulations ‘may’ be reviewed after a two year period, or at an earlier time as decided by the Authority. An exception to the prohibition has also been included, to account for emergency services and services offered during ‘times of grave public emergency’. An additional exception is that of closed networks which charge a special tariff for their usage.

[We will shortly update the piece with more analysis of the regulations] 

A Constitutional Right against Free Basics? The Link between Article 19 and Zero Rating

Written by Siddharth Manohar

The past month has witnessed a rise in tide of public debate surrounding net neutrality once more, accompanying the release of another Consultation Paper by TRAI, and another AIB video urging public participation in the ongoing consultation process. To add to this mix there has also been an effort from Facebook to build consensus amongst its userbase regarding the effect of ‘Free Basics’ on net neutrality. The crux of one set of arguments put forth in these debates consists of the harm that a differentially priced platform can cause to competition in the market for Internet applications, along with the related concern of monopolization of a section of the country’s userbase. The other side places emphasis on the need to increase the accessibility of the Internet, and both have disagreements as to the interpretation of the term ‘net neutrality’.

An important issue that gets missed out in the rhetoric is the Fundamental right of Internet users to access a diverse set of media sources on any given platform whose nature is that of a public utility. Media diversity implies that the information stream reaching the public through any public medium must be prevented from being unduly influenced by one or a few entities with a controlling effect on the market for these media content providers. It also rules against any role for the carriers of content (known usually as intermediaries or service providers) in choosing whose or what kind of content is allowed on the medium. The usage and allocation of the medium as a public resource is subject to certain Constitutional principles as well, and these are also ignored while discussing how to regulate (or not) Internet-related services in India.

The Right to be Informed

Article 19 of the Constitution guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but this right also includes the right of citizens to a plural media. As discussed by the Supreme Court in Secretary, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Govt. of India v. Cricket Association of Bengal, the debate and opinions sought to be protected by Article 19 need to be informed by a plurality of views and an ‘aware citizenry’. What does this mean for regulation of access to the Internet? It translates into ensuring the possibility of a wide array of options in terms of media consumer choices being made available to the public. Any communication platform cannot remain restricted in its control by one or a few parties. This restricts the nature of the content available through that media, leading to narrowing of the ideas views available to citizens on any public platform.

It is far from difficult to balance this concern with the free market. The principle encourages a competitive atmosphere between content providers, and seeks to avoid a situation where there is a disproportionately dominant player in the market exerting undue influence over the functioning of that market. The presence of a single or few dominant entity(ies) enjoying a magnified impact on the market makes it difficult for newer entrants to make a dent in the market-share of the dominant player, thus reducing the possibility of any competition being provided by these smaller players.

This Constitutional requirement comes in conflict with the concept of zero-rated plans at its core: can we really have a telecom company deciding the exact specific pieces of content that we receive in preference to all other content? Are we willing to hand them this power of shaping consumer choice, public access and opinion simply by choosing the right business partners? If we can conclusively answer these questions in the affirmative, zero-rating plans would have no quarrel with Article 19. Indeed, such an affirmation would even successfully dispense with one of the core tenants of the idea of net neutrality – that all data be treated in the same manner irrespective of its content.

Spectrum as a Public Resource

The Cricket Association of Bengal judgment also discusses the regulation of spectrum as a public resource. This is arguably an even more fundamental question, addressing the question of what qualifies as legitimate usage and allocation of spectrum. The Court characterized airwaves as a scarce public resource, which ought to be used in the best interests of the public, and in a manner that prevents any infractions on their rights. Justice Reddy’s opinion in the judgment even acknowledges the requirement of media plurality as part of the required policy approach for regulating spectrum.

Another SC judgment arguing in a similar vein, Association of Unified Tele Services Providers & Ors. v. Union of India & Ors., ruled that the State is bound to use spectrum resources solely for the enjoyment of the general public. Applying the public trust doctrine, it explained that the resources are prohibited from being used or transferred for any kind of private or commercial interest.

What the available jurisprudence effectively lays down can be encapsulated in the following: Spectrum is a public resource that can only be used and/or allocated by the state for general public benefit, and cannot be used in any manner for private or commercial interests. This public interest contains various concerns, one of them being the right to a diverse set of media content sources, so as to avoid interested parties having any kind of power or control over the content available to consumers. What this means for the State is that spectrum must be used in order to maximise the variety of media available to end-users and prohibit control over the medium of transmission being controlled by a single or few player(s).

This creates a tricky situation for TRAI, who have asked for public comments on the desirability of differential pricing in data services. There is a glaring lack of clarity on the exact mandate provided to the state regarding how to use spectrum resources to achieve TRAI’s officially cited objective of providing ‘free’ Internet access to consumers. Without discussion focusing on the exact nature of what we want to achieve, we will continue to be forced take reactionary positions regarding most issues and developments. Forming a concrete policy to connect India’s billion can only get a whole lot easier once we are able to agree upon a common goal and a set of principles regarding how to get there.

ep049

Image Credit: Everybody Loves Eric Raymond: http://geekz.co.uk/lovesraymond/

To B2B or Not: Brief on E-Commerce and FDI Policy in India

By Madhulika Srikumar

Justice Rajiv Sahai Endlaw when hearing a petition in the Delhi High Court on the 23rd of September this year had this to say about ecommerce, “Prima facie, the Union of India/State Governments cannot, on the one hand, for the purpose of tax, treat such sales as retail and on the other hand, for the purposes of investment, not treat the same as retail sale”.  This effectively sums up the confusion around ecommerce and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) policy in India. Whether ecommerce should be considered as B2B (business to business) or B2C (business to consumer) under the FDI Policy is the question.

The above petition was filed by the Retailers Association of India (RAI) and the All India Footwear Manufacturers and Retailers Association (AIFMRA) seeking clarity on FDI in e-commerce, arguing that ecommerce companies have been acting like retailers which is in violation of the current FDI norms. In the beginning of this month, the Confederation of All India Traders (CAIT) had also raised similar objections in a complaint sent to the Secretary of Department of Industrial Policy & Promotion (DIPP) at the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The letter in particular singled out Flipkart, Amazon and Snapdeal for flouting FDI regulations when offering huge discounts during the festive season sales. The commerce ministry in turn has requested the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and RBI to look into these companies and examine if they are indeed engaging in retailing activity.

This is not the first time that these ecommerce companies have been pulled up by the authorities. A similar probe was said to have been carried out by the ED placing Flipkart under the scanner back in late 2012. None of them to date have been found to be violating the FDI Policy to date. This could change with the Delhi High Court issuing a notice in the above case to the government (the matter is said to be heard by the High Court sometime soon) directing them to file their affidavit on the matter.

At this point there is no doubt about the increasing importance that ecommerce is going to play in India’s economy, with the industry said to cross the $100-billion mark over the next five years according to an Assocham-Pricewaterhouse Coopers study. Meanwhile the regulatory landscape for ecommerce looks quite shaky and that includes the FDI regulations.

Regulatory Framework for FDI

FDI in India is regulated under the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 1999 (FEMA). The Ministry of Commerce comes out with the investment policy and the amendments in consultation with the DIPP. This is then notified by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) through press notes and circulars. It is the Directorate of Enforcement (ED) that carries out investigations when it comes to possible violations of FDI Policy.  Penalty under the Act can go up to thrice the sum[1] involved for the guilty entity resulting in the possibility of Flipkart facing a whopping 1400 crore penalty had the earlier ED probe in 2014 found them guilty.  This kind of penalty can reduce a company to bankruptcy quite easily.

blog1

This is what Amazon’s options look like currently

Now India‘s FDI Policy (Consolidated FDI Policy, 2015) permits FDI up to 100% in e-commerce activities.[2] This however applies only to B2B ecommerce (under the Automatic Route) and not to online retailers/e-retailers also known as B2C ecommerce[3]. B2B stands for Business to Business where the trading is between business entities such as manufacturers and wholesalers or between wholesalers and retailers. B2C on the other hand stands for Business to Consumers where online businesses sell directly to the customers.

In September 2012, the Indian government allowed 51% FDI in multi-brand retail, subject to certain conditions. Whereas retail trading in ecommerce for companies with FDI (single[4] or multi brand[5]) is not allowed under the FDI Policy. The 51% FDI limit in multi-brand retail is subject to some conditions where the states take the final call, which might be difficult to translate into ecommerce which has no geographical boundaries.

All this is not to say that Amazon and the rest haven’t found a way out under the existing FDI framework to attract foreign investment. Amazon follows what is known as the marketplace model that is compliant with the FDI Policy of India. A marketplace model in ecommerce, as a Snapdeal spokesperson explained, “(Snapdeal) is a technology platform that connects sellers with buyers to facilitate transactions”. In the marketplace model, the ecommerce company only engages in the activity of buying and selling which is considered B2B and not retail trading under the Policy (see footnote n.3). Therefore under this model the ecommerce company does not carry out any retail transactions and does not directly sell anything to the customer. Instead the ecommerce platform earns commission from sellers of goods/services for their services. This move to operate as a marketplace enables Amazon[6]and Flipkart which are both majority-owned by foreign investors to still function in the Indian market without running afoul of the FDI Policy.

What Amazon can’t do is run an inventory based model. In this model, ownership of goods and services and the marketplace vests with the same entity. As a comparison India is said to be the only one among a list of developed and developing economies that does not allow FDI in inventory based ecommerce. Keep in mind that in the marketplace model, ownership of the inventory vests with the enterprises who are the ultimate sellers of the goods/services.

Does Ecommerce fall under B2B or B2C?

This section looks at what CAIT, AIFMRA and other brick and mortar associations are complaining about when it comes to e-commerce companies like Amazon, Flipkart among others. Their primary concern is that e-commerce companies are acting like B2C retailers while enjoying foreign investment that is only legal for B2B enterprises.

blog2

One of the possible FDI Models as laid out in the paper by Arkay & Arkay and Medianama

The CAIT has pointed out that the intensive advertising campaigns carried by the marketplaces should not be considered B2B activity as these initiatives are directed towards the consumers to promote their sales.  Further, the CAIT questions how these ecommerce platforms offer such massive discounts when they have no inventory at their disposal. AIFRMA in their Delhi HC petition argued that marketplaces in ecommerce in India operate as retailers since the payment, delivery, returns and refund are all handled by these companies.

The other accusation made against these companies is that they do in fact have inventories and do not perform as mere marketplaces. In September 2014, the ED was directed to look into Amazon and examine if they are making the sales instead of the vendors. The Karnataka Government also had suspicions about the “fulfillment centres” belonging to Amazon alleging that Amazon “owned” the products in such centres.  Interestingly when Flipkart was incorporated in 2008, it started out as an inventory-based B2C model that had to be changed to the B2B marketplace model after raising foreign funds in 2012.  The change however was made only in April 2013 leading to an investigation by the ED on Flipkart functioning as a B2C with FDI during 2012-2013. Again, none of these ecommerce companies have ever been found to be violating FDI Policy.

While the marketplace model is practiced by Amazon, Flipkart and others, there are also other structures through which foreign investors can enter the Indian ecommerce market legally.  One of the structures for instance can be found in the image above.  The Delhi HC petition also addressed concerns that ecommerce companies have been creating complex business structures to evade the law. One such case study is that of Amazon Asia’s stake in Cloudtail (see image below), one of the largest sellers on Amazon India. Amazon through Cloudtail can therefore dictate pricing among other things and in effect acts like a retailer. This of course pales in comparison when it comes to Flipkart and their dominant seller WS Retail that accounts for 85% of the total products sold on the portal over the past three years.  Flipkart does have operational control over WS Retail even now. This, after the famous corporate restructuring that Flipkart carried out in 2012 which included the divesting of WS Retail.  Ecommerce companies are doing all this to make sure that the companies are an arm’s length from directly selling to the consumers.

blog3.png

Amazon being clever: image from ISID paper by Rahul Nath Choudhury

Way Forward

Which brings us to the next question of whether companies should be penalized for creating such business structures or is it time to allow for FDI in B2C ecommerce instead? The DIPP considered the pros and cons of doing so in their Discussion Paper that came out in January 2014 and sought out public opinion. The government has held discussions with several stakeholders including ecommerce companies and bodies such as FICCI, NASSCOM and CII this year. There have also been several reports of foreign retailers like Amazon and Ebay lobbying with the Indian government to permit FDI in online retail in India. It is clear that there are valid arguments both for allowing FDI in e-retail and not. It is crucial however that the government decides on this soon to ensure that the current FDI framework is not manipulated and its purpose defeated. It is also worth exploring how the government can impose conditions (and what conditions) on companies with FDI in online retail, if it were to be allowed.

Fundamentally more clarity is required with respect to the definition of the term marketplace and the difference between retail and wholesale trading[7] on online platforms. With FDI not being the only regulatory concern for ecommerce in India, seeing as concerns regarding taxation of these goods/services and anti-competitive behavior by these companies have also been brought out, maybe it is not a bad idea to go back to the drawing board to figure out the definition of ecommerce in India. A better understanding of what ecommerce in India entails will help characterize it either as B2B or online retail which in turn can bring the “violations of FDI Policy” debate to an end.  Answers are expected soon from the government after the commerce and industry ministry received responses from various states on this matter a few days ago. The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in a report has proposed for a law to be passed by the Parliament under Entry 42 of the Union List[8] to govern goods/services of online marketplaces and those sold directly on the Internet. Moving forward a uniform policy on ecommerce across states will provide much-needed clarity albeit it has to be done in the near future.

[1] As per S.13 of FEMA, 1999, penalty imposed can be thrice the sum involved in the contravention where such amount is quantifiable.

[2] DIPP Press Note No. 8 of 2015, Annexure 1, paragraph 6.2.16.2.1 allows 100% FDI in B2B Ecommerce activities.

[3] Under paragraph 6.2.16.2.1 of the Consolidated FDI Policy of 2015 (effective from May 12, 2015), 100% FDI is permitted only in B2B ecommerce activities, “E-commerce activities refer to the activity of buying and selling by a company through the e-commerce platform. Such companies would engage only in Business to Business (B2B) e-commerce and not in retail trading, inter-alia implying that existing restrictions on FDI in domestic trading would be applicable to ecommerce as well.”

[4] Under paragraph 6.2.16.3 of the Consolidated FDI Policy of 2015, “Retail trading, in any form, by means of e-commerce, would not be permissible, for companies with FDI, engaged in the activity of single-brand retail trading.”

[5]  Paragraph 6.2.16.4 of the Policy provides, “Retail trading, in any form, by means of e-commerce, would not be permissible, for companies with FDI, engaged in the activity of multi-brand retail trading.”

[6] Amazon India (Amazon Sellers Services Private Limited) for instance was set up as a wholly owned subsidiary by Amazon Asia-Pacific Resources Pvt. Ltd., Singapore in 2012, incorporated in Bangalore. They had entered the Indian ecommerce market before through the acquisition of Junglee.com way back in 1998 which came into operation in 2012. Junglee.com, a price comparison website, was also set up under the marketplace model.

[7] Currently under paragraph 6.2.16 of the Consolidated FDI Policy of 2015, B2B ecommerce is considered as wholesale trading.

[8]  Entry 42 of the Union List covers inter-state trade and commerce.

(Madhulika Srikumar is a Research Assistant at CCG and a final year student at GNLU)