On Wednesday, the central government startled everyone by striking the much-debated and contentious Data Protection Bill, which had alarmed big technology companies like Facebook and Google. IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw informed that a “set of fresh legislation” will fit into the comprehensive legal framework for the digital economy.
“We have started the drafting of the new bill, which is in good advanced stages,” Vaishnaw said, saying that the draft release was “very close”. “Personal Data Protection Bill has been withdrawn because the Joint Committee of Parliament (JCP) recommended 81 amendments in a bill of 99 sections. Above that, it made 12 major recommendations. Therefore the bill has been withdrawn and a new bill will be presented for public consultation,” read a tweet by the IT ministry.
Vaishnaw added that the full framework will include reforming IT intermediary rules, and media protection from big tech. The administration is expected to shortly start holding stakeholder discussions.
The Personal Data Protection Bill was presented on December 11, 2019, in the Parliament. It outlines people’s rights with regard to their personal information, and establishes guidelines for how personal data should be treated and maintained. The bill’s purpose was to create a national data protection authority to safeguard people’s online privacy.
An expert group led by Justice BN Srikrishna originally authored the bill in 2018. The central government introduced a draft of the bill in the Lok Sabha in 2019, after which it was referred to the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) in December 2021, and later tabled in the Parliament after six extensions. Notably, the most recent version of the law covered both personal and non-personal data under its purview, which would be handled by a Data Protection Authority.
According to an official statement circulated among Lok Sabha members on Wednesday, the JCP carefully considered the 2019 bill, and recommended 81 modifications and made 12 suggestions to form a complete legal framework for the digital economy.
“Considering the report of the JCP, a comprehensive legal framework is being worked upon. Hence, in the circumstances, it is proposed to withdraw ‘The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019’ and present a new bill that fits into the comprehensive legal framework,” read the statement.
When the bill was proposed, privacy experts criticised the measure because they believed it was more in favour of the government than it was of safeguarding privacy, which the Supreme Court declared to be a basic right in 2017. Limitations on the use of personal data without the people’s express consent were included in the now abandoned bill. Additionally, it had tried to provide the government with the authority to exclude its investigative agencies from the law’s requirements, a proposal that was vehemently opposed by some MPs, who had also submitted their dissent notes.
Explaining why it took the government this long to revoke the measure, IT Minister Vaishnaw said in an interview, “After the JCP presented the report, it took us a few months. That was the only time we could have even started on a new draft or think what to do with it (old draft). Our intent is absolutely crystal clear. What we are doing is basically in line with what the Supreme Court has told us to do.”
“I fully understand that there has been a delay in this, but the subject was too complex. We could have withdrawn it, let’s say, four months back, but we needed a little bit of deliberation before biting the bullet,” he added.
According to sources, before sending the new law to the Parliament, the administration will have a significant public consultation. Several legislations dealing with privacy and cyber security may replace the current one, and the government may introduce the new set of measures during the Parliament’s winter session.
Rajeev Chandrashekhar, the Minister of State for Information Technology, tweeted that the bill would shortly be replaced by a comprehensive framework of international standards laws, including laws governing digital privacy, to address current and foreseeable challenges, and advance Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision. He said that the JCP report on the Personal Data Protection Bill had revealed a number of pertinent but unreachable concerns. In another tweet, he admitted that privacy is a basic right of Indian residents, and that a trillion-dollar digital economy demands global baseline cyber rules.
Along with outlining the framework for cross-border transfers, holding data processors accountable, and putting forth remedies for unauthorised and harmful processing, the JCP report also proposed defining the flow and usage of personal data, and protecting the rights of individuals whose personal data are processed.