The Digital Personal Data Protection Act has emerged as a subject of discussion and interest. Yet, an essential aspect which may be overlooked is the provision requiring the Data Protection Board and the Appellate Tribunal to function as a ‘digital office’. Provisions concerning digital office may be considered as a testament to the ambition of making India a hub in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). However, it is crucial to understand what this entails and the opportunities it presents.

A digital office, as envisioned in the DPDP Act, is more than a virtual space. It is defined as “an office that adopts an online mechanism wherein the proceedings, from receipt of intimation or complaint or reference or directions or appeal, as the case may be, to the disposal thereof, are conducted in online or digital mode.”

This represents a complete integration of digital communications, innovative technologies, and streamlined procedures to conduct proceedings online from initiation to completion. The Data Protection Board is mandated with a caveat of “as far as practicable” to be a digital office. Hence, as per the defined procedure of the Board in the DPDP law, the receipt of complaints and the allocation, hearing and pronouncement of decisions should be digital by design, and the board is required to adopt such techno-legal measures as may be prescribed in this regard.

The Appellate Tribunal, tasked with hearing appeals under the Act, is also directed to operate as a digital office “as far as practicable” with the receipt of the appeal, hearing and pronouncement being digital by design. Such procedures embody the principles of ODR for providing seamless, efficient dispute resolution services without in-person hearings.

Beyond virtual hearings

While the shift towards digital offices is commendable, it is crucial to recognise that the true vision of ODR extends beyond mere virtual hearings and online filing. ODR in essence also means leveraging cutting-edge technologies like smart management, digital communication infrastructure, artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and more to facilitate dispute resolution.

The digital offices must act as examples of innovation, exploring and implementing cutting-edge technologies that redefine dispute resolution concerning data principal, data fiduciaries and other related parties. This model in the DPDP Act provides the perfect launchpad for India to demonstrate global leadership in offering next-generation ODR and even defining ODR.

The Board and Tribunal can become testing grounds for the on-ground implementation of revolutionary technologies which are being implemented in the dispute resolution ecosystem and can help in refining the ecosystem before large-scale deployment across India’s court system. Imperatively, private players in India’s ODR industry are already implementing breakthrough technologies and the Board and Appellate Tribunal can take cue from their functioning.

However, all of this must be undertaken while keeping in view the objective of ensuring transparency, ease and seamlessness in the dispute resolution process.

Should this expression “as far as practicable” persist and become part of the law then, a cautionary approach is required to ensure that this terminology does not become an instrument to curb innovation under the garb of practicality. The term “as far as practicable” ought to be considered in such a way new and innovative solutions are regarded as the most practicable options.

However, it is essential to ensure that every layer of society, without exception, is positioned to benefit from such digital offices and no one is left behind or deprived of the opportunities stemming from technological progress.

Shah is a Co-founder of Presolv360, and Kapoor works in the Public Policy Team at Presolv360