“You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone,” Dvara Research’s Malavika Raghavan quoted Joni Mitchell talking about the nature and importance of privacy at MediaNama’s first #PolicyNext conference held on June 27th in Delhi. Amber Sinha of CIS meanwhile said that there was a problem in how privacy has been sold to us and that the messaging around privacy “is all flash and no substance.” Our discussion focused on why we find ourselves at the receiving end of such messaging that can result in the eventuality of us undermining our right to privacy? What are the narratives at play here?

Please note that quotes aren’t verbatim, and have been edited for clarity.

The changing narrative of tech policy with respect to privacy

Privatisation of public information, dealing with the narrative of innovation and the state becoming smarter

Nikhil Pahwa, Founder & editor, MediaNama, said that frameworks have been put in place by the state to ensure that private data could be treated as public data. “There are mechanisms and identification tools that are being used to generate more data. For instance, Aadhaar is an example, your health network is an example, so that’s a personal asset. Then, that by extension becomes a public asset in the real assets that the government creates and then you have consent frameworks that are built which then takes that government asset and converts into a private asset,” he said.

“So, effectively, it’s a privatisation of personal information through a consent framework. Denial of service actually helps the state to allow the transition from personal information to a private. So, I think that’s just the bigger picture of what’s happening in terms of our rights and our data in terms of the policy that we are seeing more often. We are running out of time”
– Nikhil Pahwa, Founder & editor, MediaNama

Sinha said while we have dealt with the privacy versus surveillance narrative for a while now, the focus is now on privacy versus development. “In the privacy versus surveillance narrative, there was fairly effective messaging around convincing people that their privacy against the state is important, and that they do have something to hide from the state. But when it comes to the development or the innovation agenda, that thought process hasn’t evolved as much,” he said.

“The rights are articulated in Part III of the Constitution with very specific reasonable restrictions that the state can use to encroach upon them. So, within that how does development fit in? How do we frame policies that enable innovation? We don’t know, but we definitely see an impact of that narrative.

When the Srikrishna report came out, it identified the data protection as an objective. The regulations were seen as necessary to protect the right to privacy of citizens, but also to enable innovation around this in data. It was actually quite interesting to see a state actually espousing data innovation as one of the key goals that it wanted to achieve through data protection regulation. So, we see an impact of that narrative very clearly now. And, we also see that impact at policy making and also the policy making that happens within the court.”
– Amber Sinha, CIS

Mohanty also said that the state has adapted to changes in society and become much smarter in shifting the narrative about privacy and ultimately attacking rights. ”The State is also shifting narratives by itself and deploying those shifting narratives. The draft encryption policy in 2014 faced a huge uproar, but that didn’t happen with the Data Protection Bill. So, the objective remains the same, but the narratives are constantly shifting and the state’s becoming a lot smarter when it comes to attacking rights,” he said.

And of course, data is a national asset

Sinha said that the regulatory agenda in India today is quite complex. “The narrative has shifted to being one of misinformation, which is a huge problem. Unfortunately, we don’t know what to do about it. The idea of data ownership is being used quite commonly these days in our policies and that does not fit with the rights agenda at all. So data ownership, or data is a national asset completely runs against our entire understanding of how to regulate privacy,” added.

Amber Sinha, Centre for Internet & Society

What makes privacy expendable?

“Privacy should be protected and it’s a fundamental right, but how does tech policy understand what is privacy in a scenario where users themselves doesn’t have clarity on what privacy means to them. And, if we see privacy, it is very contextual and has different meanings in different scenarios. So, the question remains how does policy cope up with technological advancement?” asked Pranjal Jain, a design researcher seated in the audience.

Privacy has a messaging problem and a class problem

According to Sinha, privacy has always had a messaging problem. “The key thing with privacy, because it’s such an intrinsic everyday right is that there are other rights that depend on it. And, we don’t think of in terms of it’s real value and oftentimes, the harms of letting go of privacy. While the benefits of that are more immediate, the harms are things that you cannot imagine and are much more remote in that sense.”

“So the question that I would then ask is what are the other rights that are dependent on privacy? Without privacy can you have free speech? Without privacy can you have right to associate with other people freely? Do you have the right to sexual orientation of your choice and gender identities?”
– Amber Sinha, CIS

“India went straight into constitutional rights and in countries like the US, it is always championed by the most powerful in society. As each interest group gained rights, women’s movement boomed more, gay rights movement boomed more, but whereas for us I find one reason perhaps in the political framework, it [privacy] is more expendable, is funnily enough it was not necessarily always championed by the most powerful, by the ones who could monetise at the most,” Raghavan said.

Malavika Raghavan, Dvara Research

Privacy is often seen as an obstacle in development; but has to be ensured irrespective

Sinha said that what makes privacy expendable is the fact that it is often times a roadblock in the propaganda of technology development and innovation. “The narrative in the last 5-6 years was of state surveillance and snooping into our bedrooms. But over the last few years that narrative has shifted quite significantly.”

“A lot of narrative now is about, on the one hand the state agenda of development, and on the other hand the private sector agenda of innovation. And privacy in that sense is seen by sort of different stakeholders as an obstacle in some way towards meeting legitimate state objectives,”
– Amber Sinha, CIS

A lot of design research tries to focus on whether people value their privacy or not, which I think is a completely irrelevant by this point.We do want to look at the paradox and see why people behave in a certain way even though they are supposed to value their privacy, but I think at this point whether somebody individually says that I believe it or not, it still has to be protected” said Sinha.

Read our coverage of #PolicyNext here.

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MediaNama’s first #PolicyNext conference, held in Delhi, was supported by Internet Society (APAC), OYO, Google, Amazon, Mozilla and Facebook. Digital Empowerment Foundation was the community partner for the event.