Putting the consumer at the centre of Digital India
The telecom revolution in India is an unparalleled success story. From a tele-density of 2% in 1995 to 12% in 2005 to over 90% in 2020, things have come a long way. India today has over 500 million active internet users, who consume the highest volume of data in the world (average of 25GB per month) and pay the lowest rates in the world (average price of $0.30 per GB vs $8 in the US). This massive rise in the use of the mobile internet helped lay the foundation for many businesses, besides delivering governance efficiently.
With accelerating consumption, India has become a lucrative market for B2C tech companies, which thrive on a growing reliance on their platforms. But this also means that India urgently needs an evolved regulatory framework which empowers the consumer to utilise this digital transformation without being vulnerable to data security threats.
So far, India’s approach to consumer empowerment is inconsistent at best and depends on whether the sector has a regulator overseeing it. For sectors that have regulators — TRAI for telecom; SEBI for stock markets; RBI for banking — the government has managed to ensure greater transparency in protecting the interests of the consumer. Those that do not have regulators generally fall within the ambit of the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) where the scope of the issue gets constrained to monetary transactions. As a result, there is no mechanism to redress issues such as losing privacy, as opposed to losing money.
India’s consumer internet is dominated by American Big Tech. This has implications for freedom of expression because its content rules and broader policy determinations will determine our online public squares. Repeated offences on data breaches and sharing of data between platforms have been ignored — in the absence of a regulator.
India has conventionally resorted to broad trade and market restrictions — such as blocking — rather than nuanced regulation of the digital space. In a digitally integrated world, globalisation of ideas and information has helped economies find novel ways to power growth and inclusion. Denying digital access to certain services be it through app bans or internet shutdowns, is an act of digital de-globalisation.
The Supreme Court, in 2019, acknowledged that internet access is integral to the right to freedom of speech and expression while adding that any restriction on internet access must pass the test of proportionality, and suggested the evolution of a rules-based mechanism to govern the internet. In 2020 alone, India lost $2.8 billion due to internet shutdowns, about three-quarters of the $4 billion lost worldwide due to internet curbs. Section 69A of the Information Technology Act, which gives the government the provision to block public access to specific webpages, websites and mobile applications, has been used extensively, and often without accountability. As the government evolves its policies to empower a digital India, a comprehensive national security law needs to be brought in, which thrives on compliance rather than bans as a regulation mechanism. The Personal Data Protection Bill has a good approach on the consumer side whereby the emphasis is on providing more control and transparency to consumers, enabling them to become “owners” of their information. There, however, remains concerns, including the extent of autonomy of the Proposed Data Protection Authority which is supposed to be the regulator under the Bill.
One way to empower consumers is by creating mechanisms to ensure inter-operability, by making it easier to switch services from one platform to another. In telecom, interoperability is implemented. However, in the internet space, and more prominently in the app space, consumers do not have this choice. People wanting to exit Facebook or WhatsApp cannot do so without relinquishing data, history, contacts. The journey towards a Digital India is rewarding and a great propeller for growth. A strong and consistent governance framework together with a digitally empowered Indian consumer will be a great step in building an Atmanirbhar Bharat.
Lloyd Mathias is an early-stage investor and a business strategistThe views expressed are personal
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