Why Our Data Is a Key Negotiation Issue in Modi-Trump Talks in US

Editor: Md. Ibrahim | Camera: Shiv Kumar Maurya

What is invisible, omnipresent, lives in the clouds and controls all our lives?

The answer is – DATA!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump certainly agree. And that is why India’s proposed policy of locally storing all data generated by Indians has not gone down well with the US and its big tech and retail companies.

While one may not be so sure about PM Modi giving Trump another desi handshake when he visits the US on September 21, one can say with certainty that data localisation will be a key topic during their negotiations and discussions.

So, why is the storage of our data such a huge deal?

Before we explore the domestic and international implications of data localisation, let’s briefly explore what the concept itself means.

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What is Data Localisation?

According to Center for Internet and Society, data localisation can be defined as ‘any legal limitation on data moving globally and compelling it to remain locally.’

Basically, the government has been saying that any data generated in India should be stored in servers within India.

Given that the internet itself is still a very young invention, nations across the globe are still trying to figure out how best to manage, regulate and govern it.

How is Our Data Being Stored?

So far, India has four regulations that mandate storing data on servers within its borders:

  1. Draft Disha Act wants healthcare data;
  2. RBI wants all financial data;
  3. The e-commerce policy wants all e-commerce data; and
  4. The Draft Personal Data Protection Bill says that at least one live, serving copy of all personal data should be stored in India and critical personal data should be stored ONLY in India.

The argument is that data stored in servers within the country can be mined, merged and monetised as a national resource to boost the digital economy, something hinted at in the government’s Economic Survey.

In January 2019, Reliance Chairman and MD, Mukesh Ambani argued strongly in favour of data localisation at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit – in the presence of PM Modi.

"“For India to succeed in this data driven revolution we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India. In other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian.”" - Mukesh Ambani, Reliance Chairman and MD, 

“In today’s digital economy data is the new oil,” Ambani added.

Is Data the New Oil Though?

“Data is not the new oil,” said Nick Clegg on 13 September, Countering Mukesh Ambani's analogy.

Clegg, who is Facebook's head of Global Affairs and Communications (and was previously the British deputy prime minister), met with PM Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, NSA Ajit Doval and IT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to discuss data localisation and other issues, is reported to have said that “Data is a much more fluid, intangible thing and it crosses borders.”

Which Side of Global Data Diplomacy is India On ?

You can say that the world today is broadly split into two halves on the issue of how the internet should be managed and how data should be stored.

So, which half is India a part of?

As of now, India has aligned its internet governance policy towards the ‘Chinese side’ which strongly advocates that data should adhere to the borders of the country. China and Russia have strongly advanced state sovereignty and territoriality of digital space as the preferred method of global internet governance.

As a result, Trump and US corporate giants are likely to press hard to get Modi to come over to the other side. Which broadly says that data should flow freely across the world and that geographical boundaries have no meaning or relevance to the architecture of the internet.

India is among the few democracies in the world without a data protection law and the direction such a law takes when it is eventually tabled in Parliament could be decided during the Modi-Trump talks.

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