Monsoon Session 2022: A Digital Rights Review

tl;dr

The Monsoon session of Parliament was held from July 18, 2022 to August 8, 2022. Parliament adjourned sine die two working days ahead of schedule, having sat for 16 days. In the ongoing 17th Lok Sabha, this is the seventh consecutive session that has been cut short. This session saw the election of the new President and Vice President (who is also the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha). Debates on several prominent issues, including discussion on price rise, led to frequent disruptions during the Monsoon Session. Approximately 23 Members of Parliament (“MPs”) were also suspended during the course of the session. In this post, we take a look at these disruptions, suspensions, bills passed/ withdrawn and analyse how the Parliament fared with respect to digital rights. Unfortunately, from a key legislation on data protection being withdrawn to parliamentary questions posed by suspended MPs going unanswered, the parliament saw very limited activity.

Why should you care?

Much like the Budget Session held earlier this year, this session also took some unexpected turns. The much-anticipated Draft Data Protection Bill, 2021 (“DPB, 2021”), which was reportedly going to be tabled this session, was unexpectedly withdrawn in the Lok Sabha. In the absence of legislation protecting our digital rights, there exists no remedy for individuals to protect themselves against the misuse of their personal data. While some responses from the Parliament helped us gain clarity on key digital rights issues, several questions posed by the MPs lapsed, either due to suspension of MPs or the early conclusion of the session. Ending a Session before the scheduled time means that the questions filed by public representatives meant to be answered by Ministers lapse, and other issues of public importance cannot be raised and discussed. Due to the session being adjourned two days ahead of schedule, approximately 500 Questions lapsed in Lok Sabha and 350 Questions lapsed in Rajya Sabha. Inter alia, some of the questions pertained to low internet access, data breaches in the country, and voter ID linkage with Aadhaar.

A look back

The Session, which was originally scheduled to have 18 sittings from 18th July to 12th August, was adjourned sine die two working days ahead of schedule.

Analysis of the Monsoon session as per data as compiled by PRS Legislative Research:

  • Six Bills were introduced in the session (25% of the Bills scheduled to be introduced), of which two had not been listed for introduction. Five Bills were passed (15.62% of the Bills scheduled to be passed), of which three were pending from the previous session. Lastly, the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was withdrawn.
  • Both the houses of the parliament witnessed unproductivity, with Lok Sabha functioning for 47% of scheduled time, and Rajya Sabha functioning for 42%.
  • In the 17th Lok Sabha so far, 13% of Bills introduced have been referred to Committees. This is significantly lower than the last three Lok Sabhas: 60% in the 14th, 71% in the 15th, and 27% in the 16th Lok Sabha.
  • The Question Hour also witnessed several disruptions during the session, with only 14% and 27% of the starred questions (which require oral answers from Ministers) being answered orally in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha respectively.
  • The session also saw multiple suspensions, with 23 Rajya Sabha MPs suspended for a week as a result of protesting in the House. Four members of the Lok Sabha were also suspended. However, their suspension was later revoked. It is worth noting that questions listed by these MPs were delisted post their suspension and weren’t answered, either orally or in writing.

Bills and Legislations

Last month, we released the third edition of our legislative brief - Parliamentarians’ Guide to Digital Rights in India for the Monsoon Session 2022 where we highlighted a couple of key issues and pieces of legislation that may be taken up during the Monsoon Session. We identified two key pieces of legislation that could be taken up for debate in the Parliament, out of which one introduced in the Lok Sabha and the other, i.e., the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019, was withdrawn:

  • The Competition (Amendment) Bill, 2022: This Bill was introduced during the Monsoon Session in the Lok Sabha and is currently pending in the Parliament. The Bill seeks to carry out certain essential structural changes in the governing structure of the Competition Commission of India and changes to substantive provisions to address the needs for new age markets. Several civil society organisations, including IFF have previously called for the much required revamp to hold large data and technology companies accountable.
  • Draft Data Protection Bill, 2021: The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (“MeitY”), during the Budget Session, stated that the Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) report and the DPB, 2021 were under consideration (see here and here). However, it failed to state any timelines for tabling and passing the Bill in both the Houses, despite several media reports indicating MeitY’s plans to present the Bill in the recently concluded Monsoon Session. On August 03, 2022, after 4 years of deliberation and consultation, the DPB, 2021 was withdrawn (Read our public brief and analysis of the DPB, 2021 here). Although there is no doubt that the DPB, 2021 was flawed in many ways, the inputs and feedback received during the deliberation, consultation and review process continue to be valuable and must be taken into account for drafting any subsequent data protection legislation. Post the withdrawal, several news reports (see here, here, and here) have indicated that the Ministry aims at bringing out a new bill that “fits into the comprehensive legal framework” which may include provisions on personal data protection, cybersecurity, a framework governing non-personal data and the new Information Technology Act (Read our letter to the Minister of Electronics and IT where we expressed our concerns). Sharing our concerns regarding the withdrawal of the Bill, Hon’ble MP Dr D. Ravikumar wrote to the Minister of Electronics & IT. We are grateful that he chose to express his support for digital rights and are elated to have assisted the Hon’ble MP in voicing his concerns.

Significant Responses

Throughout the Monsoon Session, IFF also tracked the answers to parliamentary questions placed in both the Houses by various Ministers. A few key responses received:

  • Blocking of social media accounts: The Ministries of Information and Broadcasting (“MIB”), and Electronics and Information Technology gave data on blocking of social media accounts. From December, 2021 - April, 2022, 94 YouTube channels, 5 Twitter, 3 Facebook, and 3 Instagram accounts have been blocked by MIB under Rule 16 of the IT Rules, on the pretext of concerns of suppression of dissent and free speech in India. Additionally, under section 69A of the IT Act, 2000, MeitY has blocked 1122 Twitter URLs in 2022 (till June) alone! (link)
  • Content regulation: In response to several questions on content regulation across print, electronic and digital media, MIB gave information on content regulation rules. For print media, norms of journalistic conduct are prescribed by the Press Council of India; content regulation for electronic media is under the ambit of e-Programme Code under the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and digital media is governed by the Code of Ethics under (Rule 9(1)) of the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 (“IT Rules, 2021”) for publishers of news on digital media. However, the Ministry failed to address the fact that the Bombay and Madras High Courts had stayed the operation of Rule 9(1) and 9(3) of the IT Rules, as they threatened the “independence of the media”. (link)
  • Internet shutdowns: MIB also answered a few questions on internet shutdowns, revealing that the National Crime Records Bureau (“NCRB”) does not maintain centralised data on internet shutdowns. This goes against the recommendations given by the Standing Committee on Communication and Information Technology, asking the Department of Technology (“DoT”) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (“MHA”) to maintain a centralised database of all internet shutdowns in the country. Internet shutdowns often also violate the Supreme Court’s directives in cases like Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India. (link, link)
  • Press freedom: Throughout the Parliamentary Session, several questions were raised on reports of declining press freedom in India, especially in the backdrop of India being ranked among the bottom 30 countries as per the Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders. In all of its responses, MIB stated that “the Government does not subscribe to its views and country rankings….for various reasons including very low sample size, little or no weightage to fundamentals of democracy, adoption of a methodology which is questionable and non-transparent, etc.” It did not, however, state any mechanisms to maintain and/ or improve press freedom in the country. (link) Disappointingly, MHA revealed that the NCRB does not maintain specific data on the arrest of journalists (link). Further, the Ministry of External Affairs disregarded international concern over press freedom and arrest of journalists in India, by stating that “uninformed comments are unhelpful and should be avoided.” All these responses hint at a grave future for press freedom and journalists’ rights in the country. (link)
  • Paid news: MIB elaborated on the Election Commissions’ measures to combat paid news, including Media Certification and Monitoring Committees set up at District and State levels to monitor media. However, it did not address the fact that the recommendations of the 2013 report of the Standing Committee of IT to curb the rise in paid news, including amending Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 (to make paying for news an electoral malpractice and a punishable offence) have not been implemented till date. (link)
  • Healthcare: The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare addressed issues pertaining to data protection in healthcare schemes like Ayushman Bharat Digital Mission (ABDM). On Ayushman Bharat Health Account (ABHA) - one of the key registries of ABDM - the Ministry shared that as of July 15, 92.46% of ABHA numbers were created from Aadhaar. However, reports suggest that many of these ABHA numbers were created without the explicit consent of users (link). In other healthcare related updates, the Ministry of Women and Child Development gave updates on Poshan- a scheme intended to improve the nutritional status of adolescent girls, pregnant women, lactating mothers and children from 0-6 years age. It mentioned that while the child’s Aadhaar isn’t mandatory for access to Poshan, the mother’s Aadhaar is required “to ensure nutrition delivery to the beneficiary”.This comes with issues of data privacy, chances of biometrics failure and subsequent exclusion from welfare services, and misuse of data for surveillance. (link)
  • AgriStack: The Ministry of Agriculture gave updates on the India Digital Ecosystem for Agriculture (IDEA) but did not elaborate on any action taken to address concerns raised in the IDEA concept paper released in August 2021. Among other things, the paper highlighted the creation of AgriStack - a collection of agriculture-centric digital databases. Not only were farmers’ organisations not consulted during the drafting process, but under AgriStack, their personal and financial data will be used in the absence of a stringent data protection law, thus making it difficult to establish liability for any data breaches. Despite multiple questions raised on AgriStack and IDEA, the Ministry failed to mention any mechanisms to address these concerns in its responses. (link)

For a more comprehensive view on digital rights issues as dealt with by your representative in both Houses of the Parliament, explore and follow @IFFonParliament - IFF’s Twitter account for parliamentary updates.

What’s next

This Monsoon Session was a huge setback for digital rights: the withdrawal of the DPB, 2021 sent us back more than four years, when the consultation process for the data protection legislation began. The upcoming ‘comprehensive legal framework’ will set the tone for India’s data protection regulatory regime and thus it is essential that the comments, feedback and deliberations serve to inform the government about the issues that various stakeholders, especially the civil society, want a data protection legislation to address. Thus, we hope that when the government finally presents the new Bill, it conducts comprehensive public consultation and discussions on the Bill in Parliament, and provides its rationale for either accepting or rejecting each of the recommendations of the JPC. We also hope that in the upcoming sessions, parliamentary procedures are conducted in good faith, such that we are able to fathom the veracious account of digital rights in India.

Important Documents

  1. Our review of digital rights in previous parliamentary sessions (link)
  2. Our third Legislative Brief on Digital Rights (link)
  3. IFF’s prior legislative briefs on digital rights (link)
  4. A Public Brief on the Data Protection Bill, 2021 (link)