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Community data in the draft e-commerce policy – Parminder Singh

by Parminder Jeet Singh, IT for Change

With data being the most important economic resource, ownership and economic appropriation of data’s value will determine how individuals, firms and countries fare in the formative digital economy. The latter will supersede the industrial economy paradigm, which can result in new winners and losers.

Data’s economic value comes from the digital intelligence that it provides about the data subject. People allowing access to some such data/intelligence about themselves to other trusted agents is not only useful, it is increasingly necessary in a digital economy. Going beyond privacy in the traditional complete ‘data denial’ sense, the focus therefore shifts to how people can control the use of their data/ intelligence. The experience of many years confirms that individuals cannot do it all on their own.

This calls for a collective agency over our data, which is what data regulation is about. Such a move, from just individual consent to collective regulation begins to provide the basis of community ownership and control of our data.

A large amount of the value of data, in any case, is not in an individual’s data per se, but in the relationships among data of different people in any group. Data about groups and communities – geographic or otherwise, even when anonymised in terms of personal identification – provides a lot of intelligence specifically about a particular group/community and can be used for its good or bad. Some of the greatest value lies in many kinds of intelligent derivatives of data that may not be personally identifiable.

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Community rights over data

When individuals are supposed to own their data, why should data about groups/communities not, similarly, be owned by the corresponding group/community? A city’s commuting data needed for smart traffic lights is a good example. As things stand right now, a city will need to buy such data back from companies like Google, Uber and Ola. Similar examples exist in every sector. For example, who should own farming data like about land/soil, climate, farming practices, etc – farmers collectively, or whoever collects it? All such data has no protection or claims under privacy frameworks.

Physical goods and most kinds of intellectual property can meaningfully be sold/monetised because their value exists outside of their original owner or locus. Digital intelligence’s value, however, mostly inheres in its application to the subject of the original data and therefore can never be completely separated from the subject. It makes little sense to sell intelligence about oneself, because it would then quite likely be used at one’s expense. Frameworks fixated on individual ownership of data and its possible monetisation are therefore misplaced.

Those benefiting the most from the current invisibility of the economic value of data, and certainly its collective aspects, do not want to foreground or discuss these issues, understandably. With the two digital poles of the US and China set to control the world’s economic and other affairs – in all areas, from production and commerce, through health and education, to military – through their command over artificial or digital intelligence, India needs to do some quick thinking. The alternative is to simply surrender to what looks increasingly inevitable.

India does not have the US’ first mover advantage, nor can it follow China’s methods based on complete and arbitrary authority of the state. In this very difficult situation, India has to explore paths based on the rule of law. With regards to this, the draft e-commerce policy has taken the most important first step of instituting collective or community rights over the economic value of important data produced in and by India – the very oil of the digital economy.

A new digital economy path for India

The draft policy makes an important declaration of intent, laying claim to the value of India’s data. It states that development of the necessary legal and technical frameworks will follow. The draft policy’s most important objective and achievement is the path-breaking declaration of a new political economy of data, and the intent to diligently work to ensure that India does not miss the data/digital revolution.

India does not want to repeat missing the industrial revolution when it occurred over the 19th century, with pernicious results that we all are well aware of. The data related aspects of the draft policy need to be supported or opposed at this general, higher level, even as suggestions for changes and improvements have been called for from the public.

The critics of the draft policy should correspondingly be able to show what other credible path can be proposed for India to become a digital economy leader in the league of the US and China. The basic framework and directions presented in this draft policy can then be compared with such alternative possibilities by building actual mid to long term scenarios.

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Lastly, many have mistakenly argued a conflict of scope and/or spirit between the data related parts of the draft e-commerce policy and the Srikrishna Committee’s report and draft bill. An area can, and is often required to, be regulated from different perspectives by different regulators and agencies, as long as such regulations are mutually compatible. The Srikrishna Committee is only concerned with personal data and privacy in the sense of protection of a key civil and political human right.

The draft e-commerce policy, on the other hand, deals with community data, and basically with data’s economic value. In fact, the Srikrishna report itself discusses community data, argues why it is not in its remit, and proposes that the government develop a different policy approach for it. The draft e-commerce policy is that different policy approach and framework.


Parminder Jeet Singh is with the NGO IT for Change. IT for Change works at the intersection of digital technologies and social change, with a marked bias towards the interests of disadvantaged people and groups. Its focus is on equity and social justice in the digital economy and world.

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