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App, Facebook rows expose regulatory grey area: Experts

India needs a regulatory framework to deal with issues of data protection and privacy, said BG Mahesh, who worked on digital political ad campaigns in 2014

india Updated: Mar 27, 2018 23:28 IST
Vidhi Choudhary
Globally, Facebook is at the centre of a storm over access gained by political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica to user data on the social media network.
Globally, Facebook is at the centre of a storm over access gained by political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica to user data on the social media network.(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

An app war between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress and a global storm on Facebook data leaks have underscored the critical need for a comprehensive data protection law and regulation of digital products offered by political groups, experts say.

On Monday, the BJP and the Congress squabbled over issues such as user content, data control, server location and third-party services related to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal app NaMo and the WithINC app.

Globally, Facebook is at the centre of a storm over access gained by political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica to user data on the social media network.

India needs a regulatory framework to deal with issues of data protection and privacy, said BG Mahesh, who worked on digital political ad campaigns in 2014.

“Reasonably sure the government must be working on it. Political parties assume that data protection is taken care of when they use professionals to develop the app. Nobody intentionally chooses a path which may not respect data privacy. If any such event happens it is only due to unfamiliarity the team may have about this sensitive subject,” Mahesh explained.

Mahesh is also founder and managing director of OneIndia, which provides content in regional languages.

A comprehensive data protection law that establishes a regulator to monitor compliance with the law is an urgent necessity, said Apar Gupta, a Delhi-based lawyer who was part of Save The Internet, a group of individuals and non-government organisations fighting to preserve net neutrality.

“Regulation should also be considered for political parties given that they have become large users of social media and maintain vast records of private information,” he added.

Experts said the recent uproars illustrated the need for users to be periodically updated about the privacy policy of app operators they use.

“Personal data, while primarily an individual concern, when gathered about large groups such as the citizens of a country, can lead to national security concerns. This is especially true for online platforms which allow advertising for political targeting,” added Gupta.

Mobile internet users in India spend 70% of their time on apps like Facebook and WhatsApp, and music and entertainment apps, according to the latest media and entertainment industry report by lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci) and EY, the consulting firm previously known as Ernst and Young.

Of the total time spent by a mobile internet user, on average 40% is spent on social media and communication, 30% on entertainment and 30% on other categories like gaming, news and e-commerce, the report aid.

Companies like Facebook and Google now boast a forceful combination of both social data and payments data to build on their profiles of the Indian user. Since their business model works on monitoring user data for up-selling, they should either be regulated or they definitely shouldn’t be allowed payment gateways, said a senior executive at a leading payments platform on condition of anonymity.

All payment entities, be it e-wallets or banks, are regulated by the Reserve Bank of India , except for WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, and Tez (Hindi for fast), Google’s payment app, said the person cited above.

“These firms act like a third party that uses the UPI (Unified Payments Interface) capabilities of a bank and piggyback on their license; therefore they are not regulated by the RBI or its affiliate bodies.”

Facebook India declined a specific comment on a query from Hindustan Times. Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of the social network, shared his take on regulating the platform in an interview to American news network CNN on 21 March.

“I actually am not sure we shouldn’t be regulated. I think in general technology is an increasingly important trend in the world and I actually think the question is more, what is the right regulation rather than “Yes or no, should it be regulated?”

He added: “If you look at how much regulation there is around advertising on TV and print, it’s just not clear why there should be less on the internet…but we’re committed and we’ve actually already started rolling out ad transparency tools that accomplish most of the things … that people are talking about today because this is an important thing.”

Google, Facebook’s primary rival for advertising revenue, said that over the years, the company had built and introduced powerful, easy-to-use tools that enable users to adjust their privacy preferences anytime.

The search giant noted that it had introduced features like My Account to give users quick access to the settings and tools that help them safeguard their data, protect their privacy, and decide what information is used to make Google services work better for them.

The company also has a tool called Privacy Checkup to help users control their data across Google and update the personal information they wish to share and make public.

“Since we’ve introduced these tools, tens of millions of Google users around the world have used it to help suit their privacy preferences. My Account has also proven popular with and valuable to our users, with hundreds of millions of visitors every year,” the company said in an email.