India’s digital data debated at town hall

Government officials and Silicon Valley pros discuss ways to address privacy and data management issues


Ritu Jha



“We need to have a healthy blend of data availability, data utility, data innovation, data anonymity and data privacy.”


(From L to R) Justice Mariano Florentino Cuellar of the California Supreme Court, Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s federal minister of electronics and information technology (MeitY), and the minister of law and justice, Raj Sabhlok, president of Zoho Corporation and Lothar Determann, a partner in Baker McKenzie, LLP at Aug. 27, town hall meeting hosted by USIBC and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

That was Ravi Shankar Prasad, who is both India’s federal minister of electronics and information technology (MeitY), and the minister of law and justice. He was giving a speech titled ‘Promoting Digital India and Economic Growth’ at a town hall meeting hosted by USIBC and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Menlo Park, August 27.


Prasad who has been promoting a digitally strong India during his visit to the Silicon Valley on August 25, had met with over 20 prominent technology companies, visited Stanford University, met community leaders, and also sought advice about data privacy from an advocate of digital India.


Prasad asked that while the Indian government acknowledges the great boom of technology and human empowerment, it still needs to properly appreciate the consequences of this technology, a topic to be a debate in a town hall like the one he was at.


He said there were other issues of privacy and innovation and data storage in India’s case. The larger the digital footprint, a natural result of India’s large population, the more the data.


“In India, we had the Srikrishna committee [to study digital data protection], and we will come with the most robust data protection law,” Prasad said.

Attendees at the USIBC and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Town Hall meeting, Aug.27.

Prasad told indica, “I am here to promote digital India, to meet Indian investors in the Silicon Valley and also to appreciate the extraordinary initiative Indians in the Valley and other places have taken. India is a happening place … and it’s designed to empower and transform. It adds opportunity.”


Speaking of the misuse of social media, Prasad said, “Social media is welcome and I fully support freedom of personal social media. It empowers common people but those who operate the social media [platform] should also be accountable. Social media is not a platform to abuse, promote extremism, violence, and terrorism. That is something which they [the social media outlets] have to be responsible for. We are enforcing the law, whether it’s rape or any other crime.”


He cautioned that the misuse of social media in India need not be politicized.


“It’s a human problem,” he said “In America, the abuse of children by priests have come to notice …. A human problem must be dealt with in a human manner.”


Venktesh Shukla, venture capitalist and a former TiE Global chairman and an advocate of Digital India who hosted a meeting with the minister told indica, “Basically he wanted feedback on the Digital India initiative.” That feedback involved cybersecurity and data handling and storage.


Shukla said many of the 20 people at the meeting had already invested in India. According to him, Prasad just wanted feedback on what India’s policy on data protection ought to be. While China and Europe have demanded that every company should have its data stored on a local server for customers in their territory, the US has no such policy.


Shukla said despite some differences it was clear that certain kind of data should be stored in servers in India- those involving defense and other strategical sensitivity data. While some data could be stored anywhere without causing harm, still other data might need certain policy restrictions but still could be stored anywhere.

“What we recommended was the hybrid approach,” Shukla said. “I think it’s a smart move by the government of India to start thinking about policy at this point.”


Meanwhile, during the town hall event, which also hosted a panel moderated by Justice Mariano Florentino Cuellar of the California Supreme Court, Lothar Determann, a partner in Baker McKenzie, LLP and Raj Sabhlok, president of Zoho Corporation, talked about cybersecurity and data privacy and the challenges that digital technology imposes.


Sabhlok told indica that in general technology creates traceable paths in a lot of transactions, whereas offline transactions were untraceable.


“We take a very strong self-imposed privacy strategy internally. We have to be but if the government is going too far …, then it makes it difficult for companies,” said Sabhlok, saying excessive regulation would result in higher costs.


“There needs to be some balance,” he said. “We are totally for strong privacy and best practices within our organization. But a government mandate will curtail business.”


Sabhlok agreed that India generates a lot of revenue and that even his company has a data center in India but if the government want the data has to reside there then there could be a problem.


Jay Gullish of the US Chamber of Commerce and one of the hosts of the town hall said that many governments, including that of India, were considering privacy issues.


He said these were frustrating and difficult issues and that everyone is trying to figure out the right policy and ways to balance the need for privacy with security.


Related posts