FOUR years after the Supreme Court ruled in a landmark judgment that privacy is a fundamental right, Indian lawmakers have taken a significant step towards providing a privacy and data protection law for the citizens. After deliberations that had continued over the last two years, the joint parliamentary committee (JPC) on the Personal Data Protection Bill (2019) has recommended stricter regulations for social media platforms, arguing that they must be treated as publishers and held accountable for the content they host. The JPC argued that social media firms must be held responsible for the content from unverified accounts on their platforms. Big tech companies must comply with stricter rules, such as reporting a data breach within 72 hours and mandatorily disclosing information if an individual’s data is passed on to a third party.
Nearly a fourth of the 30-member JPC, however, gave dissenting notes to the report, arguing that it falls short of providing an airtight legal framework and that the report has retained clauses that exempt government agencies from the purview of the law. They have cited Section 35 of the Bill, under which the Centre can exempt any government agency from any or all provisions of the proposed law in the interest of ‘sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states and public order’. Section 35 marks a big departure from the 2018 version of the Bill, which provided for exemptions in the processing of data only ‘in the interests of the security of the state’. Some members have said the report has failed to provide safeguards — such as parliamentary oversight — in Section 35 to prevent its misuse. Concern has also been expressed over Section 12, which pertains to processing personal data for provision of a service to an individual.
The concerns over the report, as enunciated by the dissenting members, are valid. The possibility of the exemptions in the privacy law being misused by the government or its agencies is real. In this year of the Pegasus spyware controversy, which is being probed only due to the Supreme Court’s persistence, it is not unnatural that opposition members of the JPC and privacy activists are particularly concerned over the report submitted to Parliament.