Treating data as commons

  • IASbaba
  • September 2, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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Topic: General Studies 2,3:

  • Indian Economy and issues relating to planning, mobilization, of resources, growth, development and employment.
  • Awareness in field of IT

Treating data as commons

Context: The Gopalakrishnan Committee set up by the government on developing a governance framework for non-personal data recently put out its draft report for public consultation

Data as Infrastructure

  • Industrial age infrastructure — roads, electricity, etc. — were often publicly owned. Even if there was some private role, these were run as closely regulated public utilities. 
  • The idea was to ensure widespread availability of such infrastructural elements to all, and avoid wasteful duplications.
  • Society’s data have a similar nature for a digital economy.
  • There are two key infrastructural components of a digital economy: data and cloud computing (analysis of data).

Why regulation of data infrastructure is needed?

  • Infrastructures are to be equitably provided for all businesses. Data have similar characteristics
  • Very few corporations have vertically integrated all the digital components involved in delivery of any digital service thus leading to creation of monopolies
  • Dominant digital corporations are building exclusive control over any sector’s data as their key business advantage.
  • What is needed, however, is to treat data as infrastructure, or ‘commons’, so that data are widely available for all businesses. 
  • Impact of data infrastructure regulation: The digital businesses then shift their key business advantage from exclusive access to data to employing available data for devising digital services for consumers’ benefit.

How does Gopalkrishnan Committee view data?

  • The Gopalakrishnan committee takes such an infrastructural view of data. 
  • Data collected from various communities are considered to be ‘owned’ by the relevant community.
  • Community ownership means that the data should be shared back with all those who need it in society, whether to develop domestic digital businesses or for producing important digital public goods.
  • Only the data collected from non-privately owned sources, from society or community sources, have to be shared when requested for. Data from privately owned sources remain private. 
  • Significance: Community ownership will help create a robust domestic data/AI industry, thus reducing the dependence on U.S. and Chinese companies.

What institutional mechanisms does the committee recommend?

  • Community Trustees: Since a community requires a legally recognisable body to articulate its data ownership claim, the committee introduces the concept of community trustees that could be various bodies representative of the community.
  • Data collectors are considered as data custodians that will use and secure data as per the best interests of the community concerned. 
  • Data trusts are data infrastructures that will enable data sharing, sector-wise, or across sectors, and which can be run by various kinds of third-party bodies.
  • A Non-Personal Data Authority is envisaged to enable and regulate all the envisaged data-sharing activities.
  • A new legislation is also recommended by committee because ensuring and enforcing data sharing will require sufficient legal backing.


  • India is the first country to come up with a comprehensive framework in this area. 
  • Starting early in this important digital policy and governance area may just provide a formidable first mover advantage for India to acquire its rightful place in the digital world.

Connecting the dots:

  • K.S. Puttaswamy Case & Right to Privacy 
  • Justice BN Srikrishna committee report on data protection law

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