Digital Policy Economy & Business India Rule of Law South Asia

Issue Brief

May 4, 2023

India’s personal data protection act and the politics of digital governance

By Stephen Weymouth

India recognizes the importance of establishing policy foundations for digital commerce, as cross-border data flows are essential to firms in all sectors, not just in technology. In manufacturing, three dimensional printing and robotics are revolutionizing production processes. Agriculture is benefiting from sensors and analytics, which optimize crop yields and resource usage. Healthcare is being transformed by electronic medical records, health information exchanges, and algorithms that analyze patient data and detect illness. Financial services are using blockchain technologies and AI to enable faster and more secure transactions. All industries rely on electronic payments, data analytics, and cloud storage to streamline various processes. With customers located worldwide, cross-border data flows are the byproduct of digital transactions. Data privacy frameworks can facilitate these flows by building consumer trust, thereby unlocking innovation and efficiency in all sectors.

Given the significance of cross-border data flows to its economy, India has actively engaged in multilateral and bilateral discussions on digital trade governance. It is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), a strategic forum comprising the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, a possible venue for coordination on digital governance. India has also joined the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), a US-led framework for economic cooperation which will facilitate conversations seeking “high-standard rules of the road in the digital economy, including standards on cross-border data flows and data localization.” The US-India Initiative on Critical and Emerging Technologies (iCET), launched by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden during the Quad summit in May 2022, presents an opportunity to build India-US trade ties through an industry-focused agenda. Finally, India and the United States have launched a new bilateral Defense Industrial Cooperation Roadmap to accelerate technological cooperation.

This issue brief delves into the politics of India’s evolving digital governance, focusing on the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill of 2022 (DPDPB). The DPDPB aims to balance the interests of Indian consumers seeking enhanced privacy and data security against the business need for unconstrained data flows. The government’s responsive approach to stakeholder feedback on previous versions of the bill indicates that achieving these goals is feasible. However, concerns persist about ambiguities surrounding data transfers and institutional arrangements that exempt the government from complying with the law in ways that may encourage surveillance and censorship of opposing viewpoints.

The South Asia Center serves as the Atlantic Council’s focal point for work on the region as well as relations between these countries, neighboring regions, Europe, and the United States.

Image: A labourer loads boxes on a handcart at a market in New Delhi, India, February 1, 2023. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis