By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, December 13, 2019: Right to Information Act (RTI) activists must have sighed with great relief though for a temporary period after the controversial Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 was referred to a joint select committee of both Houses, led by Meenakshi Lekhi, the BJP national spokesperson.

When it comes to the right to privacy, as related to the right to information, as well as freedom of the media, one can easily conclude that they are mutually conflicting as one cannot exist without the other. Striking a right balance between these two rights is a key challenge to the powers-that-be.

On the one hand, there is the right to information, the citizens’ interest into being informed, and the right of journalists to inform the public, the fundamental values of any democratic country.

On the other, there is the right to privacy protection, the right to personal data protection, and the protection of every individual’s personal and moral integrity. The fact that there are difficulties galore to balance between these two rights, and the manner in which they may be equally protected, suggests the need to achieve just that.

The hue and cry over the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 – introduced by the Narendra Modi led government in the Lok Sabha, is centered on the manner in which authorities have carved out exceptions for themselves. The NDA government has given itself the power to exempt any enforcement agency from the purview of the law which gives power to the investigative agencies to snoop on personal data in the interest of sovereignty, integrity, security of the state, maintenance of public order et al.

This will certainly have an effect on the fundamental right to privacy as part of Article 21 of the Constitution. The Bill tabled in Parliament offers no such safeguards as suggested in the draft bill prepared by the Justice BN Srikrishna Committee last year. The Panel had envisioned scrutiny of personal data as a rare exception and proportionate to the interests for which they were being obtained.

Privacy is a right for private persons and also for private affairs of public persons. There is no doubt that privacy as a notion is very complicated to define and to establish specific measures and norms for its protection. It is doubtful how much the law can protect the individuals’ privacy in a situation when with the progress of technology there is a rise in the number of tools allowing for instant sharing of personal information that might threaten the individuals’ dignity and integrity.

The quick advancement of technology offering services that do not pay enough attention to really protecting their users’ privacy is a subject matter that is not sufficiently prominent in public debate in our country.

In fact, privacy and data were in complete control of the individual before the technological progress, which we are witnessing in the last few decades. In the age we live in, our information may be intercepted and abused by others with great ease, and the gap between the public and the private has been constantly becoming narrower,

The puzzle of the new developments and turmoil in the field of privacy is that, at the same time, people do not refrain from sharing personal data on the mass Internet services (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), where they practically disclose their whole eyes in full view of other individuals, i.e. ‘friends’ (even people they do not even know). So there are frequent cases of abuse of these data (for instance, posting photographs without their owner’s permission).

Besides, citizens do not pay sufficient attention to the fact that the intense use of tools that make everyday life easier (email, smartphones, online payment, social media and many other types of services offered by modern technology) comes with certain risks. Their negligence to protect their data leaves them exposed to abuse, and their privacy is constantly threatened.

The Supreme Court of India has upheld both the right to information (RTI) and the right to privacy (RTP) as two important rights. These two rights are intertwined and often contradict one another, depending whose interests are on the line. On the one hand is the citizens’ interest to be supplied with true and clear information, whereas on the other is the protection of privacy, that is, of personal data and the individuals’ integrity.

The legislative framework to ensure balance between these two rights is not specified clearly enough. The Supreme Court has already stated that public interest should be upheld while disclosing any information under that law. Notably, the country’s top court had also said that judicial independence and accountability should go hand in hand, and that one cannot wear a garb of privacy as protection from information disclosure requirements under the RTI Act.

Even it ruled that the Chief Justice of India’s office will come under the Right to Information Act. Since 1975, in multiple judgements, the Supreme Court has recognized the right to information as a fundamental right of citizens under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution on our freedom of speech and expression. This has been read together with Articles 14, 19 and 21 to guarantee our right to equality, right to freedom of speech and expression, and our right to life and liberty, respectively. Along with these judgments, the nationwide RTI movement in the country gave birth to the RTI Act of 2005.

However, the moot point is how to find a balance between the right to privacy with RTI. As of now, whenever there is a clash between the right to privacy of an individual and the right to information of the citizens, the later prevailed as it serves larger public interest. But now, if the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 in its present form gets Parliament’s nod, there is apprehension that public interest will be relegated to the background.

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