The centrality of data equity in tech policy and reform
- Data equity focuses on ways in which data is collected, assembled, stored, scrutinised, evaluated, processed, and distributed
The pandemic saw the world go digital. With the spotlight on technology, tech policy, data and data flow, the government took important steps to regulate tech policy in personal and non-personal data, health and financial data, and data related to e-commerce.
While the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill awaits final enactment in Parliament, the non-personal data (NPD) committee released a report in January 2021 shedding light on the types of NPD that may be collected. It has delved into rights that may subsist in data. The PDP bill prescribes a consent-based model for collecting, storing, and processing personal data by all authorities. However, these laws throw up the issue of data equity.
Data equity is a broad term that incorporates an intricate design. It focuses on ways in which data is collected, assembled, stored, scrutinised, evaluated, processed, and distributed. Therefore, it can be classified into various facets of representation, access, use, and outcome. It urges us to consider the ways that data can reinforce stereotypes, aggravate concerns, or subvert fair treatment and stifle free choice.
Any discussion on equity presupposes an entity, stakeholder or a group of entities weaker than a more powerful group of similar stakeholders. This discussion brings in the question of power asymmetry between these different groups.
Data exchange involves individuals sharing their private information with organisations (government, social media and others), that collect, store and process it. Equity issues can, therefore, arise on this very collection, storage, processing and use of data.
The escalating accessibility and use of digital data mirror economic and human development. It has both political and practical connotations for the way people are perceived by the State and the private sector. The threat is that data-driven discrimination is advancing, but mechanisms to combat it are not.
The idea of data equity integrates myriad approaches, disciplines and concerns.
First, data equity has given rise to divergent interpretations of the interplay between data and social justice. Often, data equity can be perceived as a response to the social implications of data-driven technologies that have tended to address issues such as efficiency, security, privacy, and data protection to the exclusion of the data owners themselves. Inferred data can be used to perpetuate existing inequities. The infamous data breach by Facebook-Cambridge Analytica was an eye-opener to the need for equity in data laws.
Second, data equity widens the terms of the debate in a “data-fied” society, for example the embedding and introduction of disparities, decision-making powered by biased data leading to ostracism of certain groups, disintegrating working conditions, or the dehumanisation of decision-making
Third, this discourse pushes digital infrastructure to engage more categorically with questions of inclusive power and responsible politics, in addition to established notions or principles of sovereignty, trust, accountability, governance and citizenship.
Fourth, a large part of the data that we share is personal. To ensure that this information is efficiently utilised, the laws must prescribe a mechanism that ensures representational equity, access equity, use equity, outcome equity, and feature equity. Decision-making based on biased data can fortify structural inequalities that have plagued governance systems for years.
Last, discourse on data equity has emerged at the intersection of activism and technology in which data is looked at as an avenue to revert or challenge dominant understandings of the world and social justice claims to refabricate avenues for counter-imaginaries.
Data has taken centre-stage in world economies. The government framework around data management is already devoid of trust. We should use data equity as a form of critique, a blueprint of how data-driven developments counter age-old struggles against social, economic, political-cultural, opportunities and skill inequality, suppression and abuse. Ensuring data equity serves as a critical avenue to seek reforms that can better endorse impartiality and justice.
Amar Patnaik is a member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha from Odisha, a former CAG bureaucrat and an advocate
The views expressed are personal