Should government mandate corporates to sell public data for social benefit?

In a recent development (Economic Times, 9th September 2019), The Ministry of Electronics and IT (MeitY) is considering issuing guidelines under the Information Technology Act that will require agencies and companies to sell public and non-personal data to anyone in the country, including the government.

This marks a difference from the usual policy position of the government. Previously, governments have tried accessing data through modifying the intermediary guidelines (still under consideration) and data collectors/controllers have stood in opposition to this.

The new move of allowing companies to monetize data reflects a new approach on part of the government to persuade corporates otherwise.

In my view, the government did not have a legitimate chance to get free access to public information. Hence the idea of monetizing the data where government can be one of the buyers is a sensible move as it allows them access to data for usage of social benefit and corporations have the incentive to be part of the ecosystem.

How does government intend to use data and is it safe with them?

The government is primarily targeting publicly available data like usage pattern of various services and products, complaints, feedbacks, and GPS related information. The data is generally publicly available or residing with companies like Google and it needs to be aggregated, collected, and analysed.

The argument in favour of accessing public data for social benefits is that it will allow the government and institutions to solve various problems like traffic and corruption. It will also help in matters of security, and in handling emergency situations like calamities, national disasters, infrastructure planning, assist in hospitalization as well as tourism industry.

The public might also benefit from this, through outcomes such as better, data-driven traffic management. Data collectors also benefit to as selling their data provides to them an additional stream of revenue and hence incentive for them to generate better solutions and analysis for monetizing data.

However there is always a risk for misuse of any data even if it’s publicly available information. That is an anticipated and unintended consequence that the government needs to manage. Any compromise on the security and privacy of data, however, controlled and regulated by the government, would always remain vulnerable to falling in the hands of bad actors, including terrorists and enemy states.

Given the poor track record of government institutions of securing data, the doubts of effectiveness of the program will remain. While we expect governments to get a better handle on managing, sharing and using data across departments and jurisdictions – and between the various players involved in the delivery of government services (particularly when it comes to social services), the reality may be otherwise.

Do government institutions have the capability to make effective use of data?

We need a problem statement projecting outcomes on what the government plans to do with the data it may buy. As things stands, most of corporates struggle to effectively mine and analyse data to its best advantage. The source of data information is generally disparate and it takes effective data cleaning and management to put things in order. Even if the government institutions get data from various companies, they need in-house capability to collect, mine, integrate, analyse and interpret it. That is not going to be easy.

The government does not yet have technologically equipped centres dedicated to provide services that harness and analyse data. The government therefore not only needs institutions like NITI Aayog to help formulate policies but also technology hubs to design, execute, and implement.

The government needs to start thinking critically about its data policies. The need of the hour is robust, flexible frameworks and broad social agreements on data usage. Falling short of those values could lead to greater inefficiency and jeopardize various operations.

The proposal is well intentioned and there are clear benefits of the program. However, clouds of doubt remain over government’s capability to provide a secure platform and its ability to execute the initiative. Implementing such an act will not be easy. Perhaps most importantly, the government needs a capable workforce that not only understands the technology but also know how to deal with constant flux in the area of emerging technology and data management. Dealing with corporates and social media magnates who breathe and live on such programs will required equal level of expertise. Add to it the dimension of scale in a country like India.

There will be several stumbling blocks in this journey each with the potential of giving critics enough ammunition to target the government. Public dissent may rise the moment they feel that their data is at risk (read SRDH and Aadhar). The government is trying to deal with another sensitive topic on accessing public information.  Not only it has to deal with capability and security interests but also potential political hiccup.

To summarize, this has the potential to be a win-win situation for all parties involved. Government can purchase public data and trends for social benefits and corporates can monetize it. However, the execution, security and implementation challenges remains and so far it is not clear how various government institutions will execute such a move. It needs strong techno-functional capability something that private sector based IT firms have mastered but government institutions have not been able to demonstrate. Is the government making a right move and more so is it equipped to execute it? I have my doubts but only time will tell.

Ankur Bansal is a former student of Takshashila’s GCPP (Tech & Policy) Programme. Views are personal.