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Who Has the Goods on India’s Digital Public Goods: Not the UIDAI or IT Ministry, Say RTIs

The Indian government does not have information on the types of digital public goods it is making or how they comply with international benchmarks for these services

Neither the Unique Identification Authority of India nor the IT Ministry have information on the types of digital public goods the Indian government is making, or how they comply with international benchmarks for these services, revealed responses to RTIs filed by MediaNama.

Our RTI on the issue was also forwarded to branches of the Digital India Corporation in March but remains unanswered to date.

Why it matters: There are clear development standards for digital public goods set by international benchmarking organisations like the Digital Public Goods Alliance. For example, they have to protect privacy and do no harm by design, while also relying on open software. Protections like these can help protect people using them from the various harms of large-scale data collection and processing for governance.

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In an RTI that was bumped around multiple departments for months after first being filed with the IT Ministry, we asked:

  1. Which technologies developed by the government are viewed by it to be “digital public goods”? Can you provide us with a list of these digital public goods, and specify the public and private agencies involved in developing each of them?  
  2. Has the Indian government applied for any certification from the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) of its digital infrastructure?
  3. If it has, can you provide a list of technologies that have been submitted by the Indian government for DPGA certification, and the dates of when they were submitted? 
  4. Can you please also specify the status of certification (whether approved, in process, or rejected)? If approved, please provide the date of approval. If rejected, please provide information on why the technologies were rejected. 
  5. If the government has not applied to the DPGA for certification, please clarify as to how the government decides which digital infrastructure is a digital public good?
  6. What privacy-protecting standards does the government adhere to while developing these goods given that India does not have a data protection law?
  7. Do these goods contain mechanisms to extract non-personal data?
  8. Does the Indian government plan to develop indigenous standards for the certification of digital public goods?

Some of our concerns: Building digital public goods for millions of Indians means collecting a lot of public data on them to provide these services. Notwithstanding the benefits of these services, different types of concerns come with that—which stem from the fact that India doesn’t have a data protection law right now. This means there’s no clear legal standard that protects all this data, lays out how it can be used, and penalises data breaches. A draft of the law, soon to be tabled in parliament, doesn’t necessarily improve on this issue. It gives the government broad exemptions to process data without someone’s explicit consent—some experts note that this “deemed consent” could lead to privacy violations as well as sustained government surveillance. Aside from the privacy concerns, there’s also the fact that digital public goods may make it more difficult for vulnerable groups to access public services—can someone who’s illiterate, or who doesn’t have a smartphone, use digital public goods in everyday life? Beyond the fanfare for these goods, critical foundational questions like these remain under-answered, which begs the question of who benefits from India’s digitisation in the long run.

What are digital public goods?: According to the United Nations, they comprise “open source software, open data, open AI models, open standards and open content that adhere to privacy and other applicable laws and best practices, [and] do no harm”. They’re also supposed to help countries achieve the “Sustainable Development Goals“—which are 17 development issues identified by the United Nations to be solved by member states by 2030. Some homegrown examples include UPI and DIVOC (the latter was used to develop India’s COVID-19 vaccination platform CoWIN).

The Indian government has been strumming up international support for building digital public goods during its Presidency of the G20 this year. While the communiques streaming out of the summit, and other international fora, indicate warming global attitudes towards these goods, some reports note that global powers under the G7 grouping aren’t as keen on them compared to developing countries.

This post is released under a CC-BY-SA 4.0 license. Please feel free to republish on your site, with attribution and a link. Adaptation and rewriting, though allowed, should be true to the original.

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I'm interested in stories that explore how countries use the law to govern technology—and what this tells us about how they perceive tech and its impacts on society. To chat, for feedback, or to leave a tip: aarathi@medianama.com

MediaNama’s mission is to help build a digital ecosystem which is open, fair, global and competitive.



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