A recent presentation by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on the proposed Digital India Act, 2023, which will replace the Information Technology Act (IT Act) of 2000, reveals a comprehensive approach to legislation and rule-making that will enable more innovation while at the same time protecting citizens in terms of safety, trust and accountability.

Although amended several times over the past two decades, the core principles of the IT Act 2000 were drafted before the advent of e-commerce and social media platforms. While these services have empowered citizens to access services like healthcare, education and entertainment by using digital platforms, they have also created challenges in the form of cybersecurity, data privacy, hate speech, fake news, and anti-competitive practices by big tech companies. 

Without adequate guardrails in place, the Centre’s vision of a $1 trillion digital economy by 2030, could get derailed. In this context, the proposed Act will cover potential misuse of Artificial Intelligence, deep fakes, cybercrime, and competition issues among internet platforms. It also prescribes a new adjudicatory mechanism for criminal and civil offences committed online, in addition to redefining ‘safe harbour’ rules that allow social media platforms to avoid liability for posts made by users. It is now proven beyond doubt that big Internet companies like Twitter, Facebook and Google exert immense influence on the social, economic and political outcomes of a country. In India, social media is largely unregulated. While this supports the free flow of data and freedom of speech, it has also led to the rise of online hate-mongering, abusive language and harassment.  One of the welcome highlights of the new law will be prevention of concentration of market power, and gate-keeping by large tech players to enable non-discriminatory access to digital services.

While the overall intent behind the new law is laudable, there are some areas of concern that the policymakers should take into consideration. First, the digital divide between urban and rural areas is widening  because of lack of universal access to quality internet and low levels of digital literacy. If India wants to achieve the full potential of digitisation then focus must be on strengthening the digital infrastructure in the remotest parts of the country. Secondly, cybercrimes reported by Indian users is the highest among G20 countries. This raises user trust issues which could dampen India’s otherwise remarkable digital transformation. The Bill will obviously be addressing this issue.

While the outline of the new Digital India Act is impressive, it is important that it is legislated into the statute books quickly along with a strong data protection law. In a highly digitised world where individuals, machines, financial establishments, enterprises and government agencies are being connected on a single network, the importance of laws governing digital applications, and those that protect personal data can never be overemphasised.