India has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to help establish international standards for accessing and using data. In January 2021, India begins a two-year term on the United Nations Security Council and, in 2022, it will preside over the G20. Given the current absence of any multilateral structure to govern data, India can use these leadership positions to shape new rules. Its advantage may be especially great while the coronavirus pandemic forces a reevaluation of the global order.

India also has unique leverage as the world’s largest open data market.

India also has unique leverage as the world’s largest open data market. By 2024, more than a billion Indians will have access to smartphones. Their data consumption is among the highest in the world, with 598 million Indians using 4G data. Drawn to this market, large technology firms such as Amazon, Facebook, and Walmart have flocked to India, despite its less predictable regulatory landscape.

To make the most of these advantages, India first needs to pass its pending Personal Data Protection Bill, which will help clarify where the country stands on the future of data. With that law on the books, India should lead an international effort to set up regimes for data access and data transfers. The former involves protocols by which law enforcement agencies can access their citizens’ personal data in different jurisdictions, while the latter includes criteria for moving data across political borders for trade, commerce, and research.

Without updated national policies in place, India’s government has resisted schemes to liberalize cross-border data transfers, preferring that certain types of data be stored on local servers. Along with Indonesia, Egypt, and South Africa, India refused in 2019 to sign onto Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s “Osaka Track,” which the rest of the G20 supported. Meanwhile, the European Union set its own standards to safeguard privacy and ensure the movement of data across borders.

India will need to move away from its protectionist instincts.

To capitalize on this unique moment in history and mobilize support for a multilateral approach to data standards, India will need to move away from its protectionist instincts. With the right balance between localization and internationalization, India could help set the agenda for technological issues that will define much of the twenty-first-century economy.

By:
  • Rudra Chaudhuri