The government has re-introduced the Personal Data Protection Bill without budging on the most contentious provision to exempt itself from the law. The new draft bill justifies the exemption in the interest of “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, maintenance of public order or preventing incitement to any cognizable offence relating to any of these”.
These are wide-ranging conditions under which the government can breach a person’s data privacy without submitting to the regulations against such breaches.
The new bill raises the penalty provisions for entities failing to protect individuals from data breaches from Rs 15 crore to Rs 250 crore. However, it keeps the government out of its ambit for various reasons. These exemptions must be a cause for concern, as they give the state immense power to breach an individual’s privacy under some pretext. The newly introduced bill seems simpler and shorter but has left many loose ends. Data protection activists feel the idea behind keeping them is to let the government have a say in reframing some of the rules and regulations in its favour, if need be, in future. The new bill replaces the Data Protection Authority of India with the Data Protection Board of India. However, the fact that the Union government will have a lot of say in the selection and removal of members of the Board, including the chairperson, puts a question mark on the Board’s independence.
With most democratic institutions today prone to political meddling, it is pertinent to reimagine the powers and controls of newly formed institutions and regulators—especially those that directly impact ordinary people’s freedom and privacy. There are other shortcomings as well. It proposes a penalty of Rs 10,000 for registering a false or frivolous complaint, suppressing material information or furnishing false documents/particulars. This might prove a deterrenent for filing genuine complaints. Personal privacy and data protection is too serious a matter to be left to the discretion of the government alone, given the kind of power the state has over individuals. This is the draft bill, and the government has sought comments from the public. Hopefully, experts and activists will raise these concerns and force the government to re-think the provisions to exempt itself from the scope of the law or at least force a compromise.