Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'India needs a robust data protection law': Lawyer Mishi Choudhary

While India's recent ban of the more popular Chinese apps might have been the right thing to do in the short term, India needs a strong data protection law for the long run, says Choudhary, a lawyer and civil liberties activist in the realm of technology

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Jul 7, 2020 05:21:44 PM IST

'India needs a robust data protection law': Lawyer Mishi ChoudharyMishi Choudhary

Can India invent competition that challenges not just the Chinese but also American platform companies? Mishi Choudhary says that Indian internet companies can provide global digital service platforms that protect, rather than destroy, privacy. Edited excerpts from an interview with the founder of law firm Mishi Choudhary and Associates:

Q. What is the significance of India banning the 59 Chinese apps?
The ban highlights the importance of cybersecurity as part of geopolitics. As our offline and online lives converge, politics, foreign policy and trade relations will increasingly get entwined with what happens in the digital world. It’s difficult to divorce this ban from what is happening between India and China.

It highlights that in the absence of a robust privacy framework and laws with real teeth to protect people, such bans are the only way the Government of India had to act on the information it has received.

Governments now see digital platforms and companies as pillars of national power, as an immense national security intelligence resource and therefore, their strategic ally. China, an autocracy and great proponent of ‘digital sovereignty’, has always favoured domestic private market entrants for its own people. It has never played fair and now wishes to export its values to other attractive markets, which other nations will not allow.

Chinese companies, especially in the presence of Chapter VI, Article 77 of the Chinese State Security Laws that sets out an obligation on organisations and individuals to provide assistance with work related to state security, will always arouse suspicion.

Q. What in your view are India’s legitimate concerns here?
As the orders under Section 69A are not made public, we cannot examine any evidence—but what we know from the information released by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, if there are concerns, this may be the right move in the short term. Any service that is bound by the laws of an authoritarian regime that has proven time and again that respect for rule of law, human rights is absent, will find it difficult to stay above board.

In the long term, however, without a data protection law that protects its people, ensures no player, whether Chinese, American or Indian can compromise Indians' data or their privacy and use it for any nefarious purpose, India will be talking a hollow game. It must take that basic first step and then work to ensure a strong, robustly enforced data protection framework that protects people.

Q. Who stands to benefit most from this ban? Who will be affected badly?
Indian companies to some extent [will benefit], but only if we can build attractive, reliable products and build for-profit, pro-privacy IT for humanity. Only then can Indian companies benefit, otherwise the loser is always the consumer.

Q. How might this ban affect India’s startup ecosystem, given that the Chinese are strong investors in many Indian companies?
It gives them a slightly longer runway to catch up and present compelling products that can appeal to users, while respecting their privacy. However, nationalist tendencies won't take them very far if the products they put out do not have attractive user interfaces, engagement and ease of usage like the ones they wish to replace. And if Indian companies don't abide by rules and laws, start engaging in violation of privacy or surveillance, we will all lose.

Q. Can Indian companies build global products, beyond competing with or replacing Chinese products?
India can invent competition that challenges not just the Chinese but also American platform companies. Indian internet companies can provide global digital service platforms that protect, rather than destroy, privacy. India can provide privacy-respecting services that compete directly with services provided by the US data miners or Chinese apps that are difficult to trust, priced reasonably in local terms in all the developed and developing societies.