India must embrace Data Democracy

In May of 2017, the cover of the Economist proclaimed that Data is  “The world’s most valuable resource”. The proof of this proclamation can be seen by the domination of Tech Giants in virtually all major global markets. Moreover, they are quickly gaining ground & unseating incumbents in more traditional industries such as transportation, media, entertainment, advertising and payments. In the talk embedded below, I explain why this is a strategic challenge for India.

Fuelling the rapid growth of tech giants is the Data of users such as you and me. For Data controllers, Data is the ultimate truth about what your customers like, dislike, need, and pay for. With the power of AI, Data knows when, where, and how much their customers will pay, even before they do. This can be seen in all markets disrupted by Data giants, who have consistently outgrown competition and established their dominance. I present some examples in my slides embedded below.

Moreover, the virtuous cycle of data feeds itself. More Data helps create better products. Better products have more users, who in turn, create more Data. This property of Data creates winner-take-all scenarios.

Data controllers understand this new power equation, and have rushed to create platforms. Platforms accelerate the creation of new and engaging products. Other companies, even competitors, are invited to build products on the platform. Large platforms then become the fertile grounds upon which all user interactions take place, and the data of those interactions is captured by the underlying platform alone

Data is being locked into silos, so that the value extracted from the data does not have to be shared with anyone, not even with the users who helped create it. This sort of Data Domination, does not leave any oxygen for challengers to outgrow the giants. For such a powerful resource, that can change the face of $100B+ industries seemingly overnight, we seem to have very few regulations around it.

The problems around Data represent a triple-threat. We need to rethink Anti-Trust, Privacy & Data Colonization in the light of Data Domination. It is clear that the issues around data are not just a technology issue, but also a policy one.

The argument here is not protectionism, it is that under the current regulatory & market conditions, Data accumulates in the hands of a few, and hence, so does power. This holds true equally for foreign as well as domestic firms. The EU is notifying the General Data Protection Regulation, a set of data protection measures placing extensive restrictions and penalties on data controllers. Similar protection as well as anti-trust efforts are underway in US, Japan and even the UK. But these countries don’t share the same socio-economic context as India.

India also managed to jump ahead of the curve in developing digital infrastructure as public goods. We have a billion users on the JAM trinity. We have strong national-level platforms such as GSTN, BBPS and UPI. The government has also developed the India Stack, a set of Open APIs that enable paperless, presenceless and cashless transactions dramatically driving down the cost of transactions. Between Telecom-OTP, Aadhaar Authentication and UPI PIN, we have three unique methods of authentication, that can be mixed and matched to design the level of security and robustness required.

With such a strong digital spine and a growing mobile-first citizenry, India can make a significant departure and develop a unique model for data protection as well as empowerment. We need to proclaim that users have a right to access their own data and should be able to share it in a safe, consented manner with anyone they choose. This is an inversion of the usage and ownership of data.

Inverting the Data is only about giving the user freedom and choice. The freedom to share their data, and the choice of multiple providers. Data portability will empower users to choose what their data is used for. Being able to share a rich data history, increases trust in transactions. This choice of sharing is as relevant for a rural farmer as much for an urban millennial. The more reliable and accurate data you share, the better the interest rates on a loan, whether you’re buying a tractor or a sedan.

To empower users with Data, there are 3 steps India needs to undertake. First, we need to convince the government to open up big public data sets for users to consume. This includes data from national platforms such as GSTN, BBPS, etc. Second, regulators need to open up the data sets in their jurisdiction in a standard, machine-readable format. Third, we need a policy intervention to allow for the free flow of data with user consent in the private, unregulated spheres.

In today’s world, Data is power. History has shown us time and again, that we must not let power accumulate in the hands of the few. Instead we must empower all with their data. Your Data is your vote, and you should be able to choose whom you give it to. With 3 simple steps, India can lead the world in demonstrating a true Data Democracy.