“You really want your grandson to become a delivery boy?” Vinit Goenka, the former National Co-convener of the BJP’s IT Cell, and a member of the Center for Raily Information Services (CRIS), said at MediaNama’s discussion on India’s Data Protection Law in New Delhi on 23rd of August. Goenka exhorted the audience to accept data localisation and digital sovereignty, saying that “Data sovereignty is a reality. Some data has come in front of you. Some will come in the months to come. If we get re-elected in 2019, it will be total sovereignty.”

Goenka defended the Srikrishna Committee’s contentious provision in the draft Data Protection bill that at least one copy of all Indian citizens’ personal data held by companies should be stored in India.

“We cannot force Indian industries to close down, and force our people to just become delivery boys of Flipkart, and then Flipkart survives and becomes big, and say that whatever $17 billion will come, will come to another country, not to India, who is basically consumer. We’ll have to dissect this, and understand. Colonization does not mean that someone will come with a gun and actually colonize you. Colonization also means that someone will come with licenses and patents and sit on your head. As a country, we have to all grow up and say, ‘Enough of this!'”

Goenka said that sovereignty includes ICT sovereignty, not only territorial sovereignty. “As a politician, I’m not supposed to be talented”, he said, “But when I see 800 years of slavery — and I think that continues in our mind, and we think whatever is there in the west is right for the country. And if some other countries have not done it, we should not do it. We have not done it in the past, so we should not do it now. Just because some people who are motivated or financially benefited, they put it very articulately, and they have means to put it to the larger perspective of the people.”

“We’re ready to give all the data to the visa officers here. We’re ready to give things on Facebook, on the mobiles, which are internet-existing. When sole questions are asked for one particular policymaking this thing, which will help us have better policy devices being created, then there is a narrative created that privacy is being challenged.”

“Let us dictate a little bit”

“See, we [in India] are one sixth of human beings, one fifth of the market. The market decides how the game of the rule will be. Let us dictate a little bit. Let us come out of this slavery mentality where we always get dictated by some smaller marketplaces, on ease of doing business or economic scale. We gave them economic scale because ten years of no policies. Nobody thought we’ll send hundreds of satellites. We did that in one go. We are rising fast, we’ll buckle up.”

Responding to a question about challenges to localisation, especially given global agreements that India is party to, Goenka said that “As far as the WTO regime goes, ASEAN agreements which we have signed or the BRICS agreement we have signed, there is an idea of PMA, Preferential Market Access. And we have signed them for our benefits. We don’t become slaves to them. If they don’t benefit us, we may have to think other ways.”

On repercussions of data storage outside India

Goenka cited the example of a girl whose “photograph was morphed and Facebook denied us access to the IP address which was morphing it. The girl hanged herself. And after her suicide, and we invoked the Geneva Convention and got the data, and it was a stupid guy. Somebody thought “If I put slur on that female, I may get access to her marriage.” This kind of small thing, where somebody acts very funny.”

“Cambridge Analytica happened because the data was there [in a different country]. Had it been here, I would have put some boys behind the bars. They would take a day to give the data. Today they are trying to push their patents.”

On surveillance, security and data leaks

Goenka said that localisation will not impact privacy. “Localisation will not impact anybody’s privacy. If in case you know some officer who tries to do that, there are laws and rules which will guide.”

In response to a question from the audience about data leaks risking a person’s habits – say, beef eating – and there being a risk of lynching, he said that it was worthwhile to trust the Indian and military police, because they would protect the person. Additionally, he said, that if a non-Indian company/person got to know that the person was eating beef, he said “… they may well plan and make sure that you don’t get Indian beef, and they push their beef inside our country. Whether you eat x or y is not my concern. But I can’t kill my Indian market and Indian industries for this.

“And somebody feels that the data kept in my country will go for surveillance, let me correct them. In this room also we have lot of alias (sic), right? I don’t know how many of you know that people are sitting here. They may be listening to this, [that] does not mean that there is surveillance. This is a myth that has been propagated by certain people who have an interest in us not having a data centre here.”

Financial growth from data centre investment

Goenka went on to add that he believes that a 10% investment in ICT hardware and data centres would lead to a 1.38% growth in India’s GDP. “Just because it [investment in data centres] did not happen between 2004 and 2014, [it is not that] I will not allow this to happen between 2019 to 2024.

If they [foreign companies] believe that data is borderless and data can be kept anywhere, I invite all the countries of the world to keep their data here. And as we trusted them all these years, they can trust us. Let us debate what are the processes, what are the standards to be followed, and we can put in all the standards…the best of the things.”

When asked by a member of the audience about impact assessment studies done (regarding how it would impact businesses, and economic growth) prior to recommending data localisation, Goenka said:

“There’s deliberations and discussions going on, scientific analysis going on. We collect data, then there is a debate, with stakeholders, and I don’t decide things because I decide, when it goes to various people, there are various committees, and they all work on data, sir. Without data nobody works. You may not have seen, that’s because the government cannot come to your doorstep saying humko nirnay karna hai [we have to take a decision], the stakeholders were involved. They’re not only the stakeholders, there are all the stakeholders.”

“We discussed, and you have to take it on face value. There’s quantum and impact analysis done.”

On being asked about which ministry (so that MediaNama can file an RTI and get a copy of the impact assessment done), Goenka said that an RTI can be filed with the GAD.

India’s large size allows data centres anywhere

Goenka said he felt ashamed that India was 29th in the list of Ease of Doing Business in 2013, due to not having electricity, cost of energy etc. “But.. against the Business Continuity Process, whereby you don’t keep data in one place, because of man-made challenges or natural calamities. Fortunately, my country is so big that you can have a data centre in Trivandrum, and another in Sikkim. It is as good as between seventeen countries of Europe… We may be one single country but we are enormous; we have almost three timelines which can do it,” he said.

On transparency in the Srikrishna committee process

He went on to add that “This bill which we are discussing… there were debates, discussions, we heard everybody. The impact was seen.

“The conclusion was one. It’s time we wake up and wake all those people who know that the challenge of sovereignty lies here. And then came this particular bill, and the draft bill. And seeing the Justice Srikrishna bill also — there was judicious time given. Six months where people reacted.” He added that people who spoke in various forums and media houses “never thought of writing a reaction to Srikrishna.

“I’m open for public discussion and debate, and if there is a need to discuss anything and everything once again, that’s also okay. In our country we have the right to discuss again. If there can be amendments in constitution, there can be amendments in this particular bill and policy also. Once a bill is written, that doesn’t make it a final bible which cannot be discussed or debated. There are a few people sitting here who say one thing, while there may be a larger crowd out there saying something else.”

“That discussion can continue and we can go on. The days are gone when you make a law or policy and forget it. Now the days have done because of technological challenges where you have to be vibrant, where you have to keep your ears open, you have to move. And everytime there’s a change in technology, there’ll be change in things, changes in the environment. You have to accommodate the environment, and make that policy so vibrant that every time you accommodate requests. That’s the beauty of democracy is. If you think the approach was wrong, please guide us, we’ll change it. If there are things that need to be changed, we’ll do that.”

Analytical tools kill the local market

Goenka said that he was surprised to see the differences in the same supermarket chain’s aisle product placements. He observed that in D-Mart Sarojini Nagar, small onions were placed in the first rack because the area consisted of many Malayalis, whereas in CR Park, there was mustard oil in the first rack because of people from West Bengal.

“The reason is because they use simple analytical tools and kill your local market there. The baniya(s) sitting in both the places were not bad, they were supplying the same thing. But they didn’t have this IT enablement. And that gave him a little less edge.”