Howdy, Modi: Why PM’s ‘Data is Gold’ Remark is a Key Indo-US Issue

The data of Indian citizens and where it should be stored is expected to be a key feature of Modi-Trump talks.

Tech and Auto
3 min read

Editor: Purnendu Pritam | Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya


Digital India was among the long list of topics that Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke about at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event on Sunday, 22 September.

In an elaborate speech, that lasted over 45 minutes, the prime minister spent about three minutes on the topic of ‘Digital India’ and spoke about it in terms of India as a data economy.

Digital India in the context of a data economy is important as the government has identified data as a primary fuel to power India into a $5 trillion economy.

PM Modi said two specific things about data:

  1. Data is the new gold
  2. Data in India is cheapest in the world.

Data = Gold, Oil, Water or Something Else?

Modi’s description of data as “gold” is interesting because data had been compared to a variety of commodities. Facebook’s global head of communications, Nick Clegg, during a recent visit to India in September, had described data as “water”.

The most common comparison, however, is that ‘data is the new oil’, articulated by many including Reliance Chairman & MD, Mukesh Ambani.

So, what really is data?

To some, there might be an inherent contradiction in describing data as “gold” and qualifying it as a highly valuable commodity and also calling it “cheap”. How does one connect the two?

Perhaps a more apt metaphor for data is, us. For the value of data is derived from the information it contains about us, the consumers of ‘cheap’ data.


The value of data arises from the fact that mining it gives companies, businesses and governments granular insight into individuals and behavioral patterns.

Behind the scenes, once the hype and dust of ‘Howdy, Modi’ dies down, the two leaders are expected to engage in negotiations on the data of Indian citizens – specifically on India’s proposed policies on data localisation.

What is Data Localisation?

According to Center for Internet and Society, data localisation can be defined as ‘any legal limitation on data moving globally and compelling it to remain locally.’

Basically, the government has been saying that any data generated in India should be stored in servers within India.

Given that the internet itself is still a very young invention, nations across the globe are still trying to figure out how best to manage, regulate and govern it.

So far, India has four regulations that mandate storing data on servers within its borders:

  1. Draft Disha Act wants healthcare data;
  2. RBI wants all financial data;
  3. The e-commerce policy wants all e-commerce data; and
  4. The Draft Personal Data Protection Bill says that at least one live, serving copy of all personal data should be stored in India and critical personal data should be stored ONLY in India.

The argument is that data stored in servers within the country can be mined, merged and monetised as a national resource to boost the digital economy, something hinted at in the government’s Economic Survey.


Modi-Trump’s Data Diplomacy

Clegg had met with PM Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, NSA Ajit Doval and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in September to discuss data localisation and other issues, and is reported to have said that, “Data is a much more fluid, intangible thing and it crosses borders.”

Trump and US corporate giants are likely to press hard to get Modi to come over to the other side. Which broadly says that data should flow freely across the world and that geographical boundaries have no meaning or relevance to the architecture of the internet.

India is among the few democracies in the world without a data protection law and the direction such a law takes when it is eventually tabled in Parliament could very well be decided during the ongoing Modi-Trump talks.

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