[Statement] India: Re-Assess Digital Personal Data Protection Bill Amidst Concerns for Fundamental Freedoms
15 August 2023 2:04 pm
(Bangkok/Kathmandu, 5 August 2023) – The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) expresses its serious concerns over India’s Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDPB) 2023, citing lapses in parliamentary procedures and the lack of public consultation, alongside potential threats to freedom of expression and press freedom.
The absence of transparent public consultations and adherence to proper parliamentary procedures raises serious concerns. Notably, the comments on the 2022 version of the DPDPB were not subjected to public scrutiny. Soliciting inputs required registration on a government website, posing a considerable barrier to extensive public participation. Several opposition members staged a walkout as the bill was not formally presented and the members of the Standing Committee did not get to see the final draft.
The bill’s stance on surveillance and censorship is also deeply troubling, given the lack of robust surveillance reforms. The current version of the legislation could open the door to unchecked citizen surveillance, potentially including journalists and their sources. This is particularly troubling given past instances where the Indian government employed spyware to target human rights defenders, including journalists. The current version of the legislation could inadvertently create an environment where the privacy and rights of HRDs could be compromised without proper safeguards in place.
We are particularly alarmed by Sections 17(2)(a) and 17(4) of the bill, which allow data retention and exemption from protective provisions. Likewise, we are concerned about Section 36, which grants government access to personal data.
In addition, we remain wary of the possibility of increased censorship. Granting the government the authority to censor content under the pretext of the ‘interest of the general public’ poses a serious threat to fundamental freedoms. This could potentially exceed the reasonable restrictions on freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 19(2) of India’s Constitution.
The integrity and activities of journalism also face significant risks due to the absence of provisions for media workers within the bill. Reporting on matters of public importance could clash with stringent data protection regulations. The lack of a well-defined framework for reconciling these priorities further jeopardises independence and freedom of the press in India.
The bill’s expansion of exemptions under the Right to Information (RTI) Act raises concerns about undermining India’s carefully balanced RTI Act, which strikes a balance between privacy and transparency of public information. However, the provisions in the current law lean towards non-disclosure, potentially undermining accountability and journalists’ essential access to critical information.
Doubts also arise regarding the projected independence and credibility of the proposed Data Protection Board as all members are slated to be government appointees. The question of maintaining autonomy from political and executive influences remains uncertain, casting doubts on the board’s impartiality.
Despite opposition walkouts during parliamentary deliberations, the bill has been passed in both houses of the Indian Parliament.
FORUM-ASIA underscores that this legislation could significantly compromise fundamental freedoms, especially free speech, press freedom, and the right to access information. We urgently call upon the Indian Government to reassess the implications of this bill and engage in comprehensive consultations with all stakeholders.
The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) is a network of 85 member organisations across 23 countries, mainly in Asia. Founded in 1991, FORUM-ASIA works to strengthen movements for human rights and sustainable development through research, advocacy, capacity development and solidarity actions in Asia and beyond. It has consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council, and consultative relationship with the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights. The FORUM-ASIA Secretariat is based in Bangkok, with offices in Jakarta, Geneva and Kathmandu. www.forum-asia.org
For media inquiries, please contact:
- Communication and Media Programme, FORUM-ASIA, [email protected]