People use internet on smartphones, using apps which use their data to provide tailor-made Services

The Supreme Court (SC) landmark ruling on fundamental rights for privacy will influence the functioning of internet companies in India, which currently can harvest user data without restrictions to deliver services and monetise them without benefiting the individual.

India is the world’s largest open market where over a billion users are gearing up to access information, transact and conduct business online. A majority of these users access internet over a smartphone, using apps that harvest data about an individual to provide them with tailor-made services.

These apps not only use personal data of a user when they open them, but also ride off details such as location, the other apps used on the smartphone, scan images on devices and get to know the people they know through access to their contact book.

“Knowledge about a person gives a power over that person. The personal data collected is capable of effecting representations, influencing decision-making processes and shaping behaviour,” wrote Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul in his judgment as part of the unanimous upholding of the right to privacy as a fundamental right by the nine-judge constitutional Bench.

“It can be used as a tool to exercise control over us like the ‘Big Brother’ State exercised. This can have a stultifying effect on the expression of dissent and difference of opinion, which no democracy can afford,” he wrote.

E-commerce firms, data and internet-based companies, technology creators as well as the telecom industry, who use personal information of people as part of their business strategy, are all set to become more accountable, thanks to the ruling.

“This judgment effectively has far-reaching ramifications that the right to privacy is not just a right in the physical world, it also is a fundamental right in the virtual or cyberworld. This effectively means snooping on my social media account, or unauthorised interception of my data, I can legally challenge it as a violation of my privacy,” said Pavan Duggal, cyberlaw expert and an SC advocate.

Many believe that after this ruling sharing data which is the intrinsic part of most digital and e-commerce businesses would be drastically reduced.

“Obligation on e-commerce and internet companies will increase after SC’s ruling. For many of these companies, working would be difficult, as sharing and using that particular data would now be increasingly difficult. Things are set to become more stringent for these companies for sure,” said Amarjeet Singh, partner-tax, KPMG India.

Nandan Nilekani, co-founder of Infosys and the architect of the Aadhaar programme has warned of digital colonisation by firms such as Facebook and Google, often speaking that these companies harvest data and take it to servers outside the country, without any checks on who gets access to these data. Interestingly, the lack of data protection and privacy laws has been a reason why companies could exploit user data for commercial purposes.

However, technology-based companies claim that the best practices are already been followed. “E-commerce companies already have privacy policies based on either United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act or India’s IT Act. Our industry anyway is following best practices anyway, but we would abide by any new rules. However, I feel that there are so many larger issues in the internet sector than reigning us in that should worry the authorities more,” said Sandeep Aggarwal, founder and chief executive officer, Droom.

“Unless there are specific instructions from the Department of Telecommunications, this judgment would not impact the ongoing exercise of linking mobile numbers to Aadhaar for subscriber verification,”Rajan S Mathews, director general, Cellular Operators Association of India.