India is the world’s largest democracy and second-largest internet user base. How well, then, is the collective voice of a rapidly digitising country represented in Parliament ?
A recent report that has diligently compiled all digital rights issues raised in the 16th Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha over the last five years captures a snapshot of where India stands regarding legislation on issues of cyberspace.
The report, “Digital Rights in India’s Parliament: Five Years in Review” released by Access Now, a global organisation advocating for human rights in cyberspace, states that it has explored “issues MPs have considered important, the legislative initiatives Parliament has undertaken, and the reports various standing committees have considered.”
Here are 5 most interesting insights into how Parliament has dealt with issues in India’s cyberspace from 2014 to 2019.
154% Increase in Questions Asked on Privacy
If the 15th Lok Sabha asked 114 questions on privacy between 2009 and 2014, the 16th Lok Sabha asked 290 questions. This was a whopping 154 percent increase in over five years.
However, despite a spike in interest in data privacy and a Supreme Court judgment on privacy as a fundamental right, the draft Personal Data Protection Bill, submitted by the Srikrishna Committee in July 2018, is yet to be tabled in Parliament.
“We are seeing increasingly that MPs are asking questions about people's rights in the digital age,” Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Policy Director, Access Now told The Quint.
“The main takeaway is the significant increase in the number of these questions. MPs have previously asked questions about privacy and for example on technical subjects like data protection but we notice a 154 percent increase in just the last 5 years over the term of the previous Lok Sabha,” Chima added.
BJP MPs Have Asked More Questions on Privacy Than Those From Any Other Party
A statistic that stands out in the report is the party-wise breakdown of questions asked on privacy. BJP MPs have asked more questions on the subject than the next three parties combines.
So, which parties have shown the most interest in the subject?
- BJP: 71 MPs
- INC: 21 MPs
- AIADMK: 21 MPs
- Shiv Sena: 11 MPs
In fact, Rajeev Chandrashekhar, BJP’s MP in the Rajya Sabha asked the most questions (14) on privacy between 2009 and 2019.
“They are not issues that are limited to particular parties. Even the governing party which has its key members as part of the government are ministers. Even their backbench MPs are asking questions. They, in fact, form one of the largest blocks of people asking questions.”Raman Jit Singh Chima, Senior International Counsel and Asia Policy Director, Access Now
“So it seems as even though people see brut numbers in the Lower House they still seem to bring at least, maybe for the sake of signalling, perhaps to show people that they are asking questions... they’re asking questions about digital rights on the floor of Parliament,” Chima added.
Lok Sabha Shows More Interest in Surveillance Issues
While MPs in the the Upper House of Parliament have asked only 13 questions on surveillance and snooping, those in the Lower House asked 91 questions over the same period.
While Chima highlighted that MPs appear particularly interested in questions around privacy, including both data protection practices and surveillance by government agencies and surveillance reform, it is important to note that India’s draft data protection bill has incurred sharp criticism for not including surveillance reforms within its provisions.
Therefore, a recent tender issued by the National Crime Records Bureau to acquire a nationwide Face Recognition Technology has sparked serious privacy concerns because of the absence of an underlying legal framework to oversee this.
Key Issues Have Varied Across Sessions
A key insight into how Parliament has reacted to issues facing people is by the fact that “in each parliamentary session, a short list of issues became the focus for inventions,” the report stated.
If issues of surveillance and net neutrality dominated the Budget Session in 2015, the Budget Sessions of 2016 and 2017 were dominated by Aadhaar and its privacy concerns.
The 2018 session saw data protection as the primary focus among MPs. The Srikrishna Committee on Data Protection had submitted its report and a draft Data Protection Bill to Ravi Shankar Prasad, Minister for Electronics and IT. The bill hasn’t made it to Parliament yet.
‘Standing Committee on IT Not Doing Enough’
An area of concern, however, pointed out by the report, is the productivity of the Standing Committee on IT. The 30-member committee, headed by BJP MP Anurag Thakur “presented 60 reports at the table of both Houses but only four dealt with digital rights issues taken up during Committee meetings,” the report adds.
In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica data breach in April 2018, the committee had held a meeting but the report of it was never made public.