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To keep up with tech and regulate WhatsApp & Amazon, India must adopt ‘futures thinking’

With the Indian govt's Personal Data Protection Bill only outlining broad principles governing data, the role of the Data Protection Authority becomes even more important.

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In India, regulatory thinking on technology has traditionally relied on informed guesses, projections and scenario planning. This is where ‘futures thinking’ can come in and change how such policies are made.

Technology is a difficult beast to tame. Putting guardrails on its evolution is nearly impossible due to the pace of technological development and the difficulties in identifying future effects. If the Narendra Modi government is to anticipate technological advances and policy — or even keep pace with them — the proposed Data Protection Authority (DPA) must think through the direct, indirect and induced effects of technology before introducing new standards and policies.

With the Personal Data Protection (PDP) Bill, 2019, only outlining broad principles governing data, the role of the DPA becomes excruciatingly important. The authority must be forward-looking and anticipatory rather than being reactive in nature.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution — with its frenetically-paced, widespread technological and social change — has made new technological products extremely tricky to regulate. As a 2016 World Economic Forum white paper noted, “relying only on government legislation and incentives to ensure the right outcomes [for regulating the fourth Industrial Revolution] is ill advised. These are likely to be out of date or redundant by the time they are implemented”.

Also read: More power & data access to govt — all about personal data protection bill

The idea of ‘futures thinking’

Regulating platforms such as WhatsApp and Amazon, for instance, is like playing whack-a-mole. These use advanced technologies in rapidly evolving industries, making it hard for regulators to pin down such platforms as specific products. Even the markets they operate in are difficult to define. By the time that actually happens, the product, and at times, even the industry, would have morphed into something else altogether.

The idea of ‘futures thinking’ has fed into government policy and decision-making across the world for some decades now. Australia established the Commission for the Future in 1985 (dissolved in 1998) where future planning for taxation, child support and federal police was conducted. Japan used Delphi Surveys, a forecasting technique, to advance research and development in the country. The Dubai Future Foundation, established in 2017, is yet another testament to the importance governments give to futures thinking and the role it plays in shaping forward-looking policy. These tools and methods could inform technology policy as well.

Countries have realised this and started taking inputs from futures thinking to inform their regulation of technology. For instance, the United Kingdom’s Foresight Directorate of the Office of Science and Technology launched a project on cyber trust and crime prevention in 2004  to “explore the implications of future information technologies for effective interaction and trust between people and machines in areas such as identity and authenticity, surveillance, system robustness, security and information assurance”. On the other hand, China has successfully invested serious capital and human resources to develop actionable policies on its current and future use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For example, the Asian giant plans to roll out AI in sectors such as education, military and city planning by 2030. To achieve this, China charted out a plan in 2017 that was evolved, robust and in sync with the current and future possibilities of AI.

Also read: The era of data-globalism is over. Where does this leave India?

India’s tech policy plan

Such futures thinking for technology policy is especially critical in the Indian context. India has the second-largest digital consumer base (after China), with nearly 1.2 billion mobile phone users and 560 million internet subscriptions. More than 207 million Indians went online between 2013-2017 in addition to a quadruple increase in smartphone adoption. Since this rampant pace of innovation and adoption is showing no signs of slowing down, the DPA needs to ensure that it is anticipatory rather than reactive in nature. Technology will always be in flux — with ever-increasing application of AI and multifarious developments of technologies like anonymisation/encryption — calling for a regime that will make provisions for these changes. Further, the DPA’s vast, cross-sectoral remit demands that it thinks through future effects because no technology is bound by sectoral silos.

The Indian government has made a conscious attempt to be futuristic in informing technology policy. However, it has been a story of hits and misses. Building and adopting soft digital infrastructure such as the United Payments Interface and the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture are excellent efforts on this front. Some other efforts have not been as forward-looking like the committees that have drafted bills on issues such as artificial intelligence and digital competition. Similarly, state-level efforts have played catch-up rather than actually have future-oriented thinking.

Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Kerala have implemented ‘virtual IT cadres’ for better management and implementation of e-governance projects. Such implementation though, still has problems such as dual reporting structures that create inefficiencies and hamper functioning. Much still remains to be done to keep up with newer technologies and create regulatory frameworks that are tailored to the Indian context.

Technology affects all areas of policy-making. Gathering intelligence about the future, exploring the dynamics of change, developing and testing policy to meet future needs is crucial for technology policy to evolve. Given its vast, cross-sectoral remit, the proposed DPA has to generate the foresight required not only to build policy but to also extend its insights on using technology across different sectors.

Harsh Vardhan Pachisia is Associate and Prakhar Misra is Senior Associate at IDFC Institute. Views are personal.

This is the first in an IDFC Institute-ThePrint partnership series, part of the Data Governance Network’s work on data governance policies and infrastructure in India

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