Research

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  • Cover tech tools paper

    In this exploratory study, I assess account aggregators (AA) in India, and the emerging ecosystem in which they are embedded, against the feminist principles of consent in the age of embodied data. While consent continues to be a cornerstone of ensuring autonomy across data protection regimes, research has nevertheless been critical of it. In an earlier study, Anja Kovacs and I (Kovacs & Jain, 2020) identified the current perception of data, i.e. as a resource, as one of the crucial problems plaguing existing consent regimes; instead, we demonstrated, data is increasingly functioning as an extension of, or even integral to our bodies. We then built on this reconceptualisation to draw parallels between feminist learnings around sexual consent and data protection, to delineate six feminist principles that need to be observed in data protection regimes for consent to be meaningful there (Kovacs & Jain, 2020). Meanwhile, technology-enabled consent frameworks, such as the account aggregator framework conceptualised and launched in India, aim to similarly address key criticisms of consent regimes today, to thus strengthen user consent and the autonomy of individuals. I examine in this research study how well the developing AA ecosystem in India is delivering on these claims in practice. Assessing it against each of the feminist principles of consent, I ask to what extent AAs align with the feminist principles, whether AAs are effective, and what the way forward is. As we will see, while AAs do mark a notable improvement over existing consent regimes in a number of ways, many weaknesses remain. All too often, this is because AAs are positioned as a silver bullet: changes in the broader landscape in which they are embedded, while crucial to their mission, remain absent. As long as this does not change, it will not be possible for AAs to do all the work that is currently expected from them.   More

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  • Health Data as Wealth: Understanding Patient Rights in India within a Digital Ecosystem through a Feminist Approach

    Cover Health Data as Wealth

    Over the past few years, there has been a drive towards the digitisation of healthcare in India. Policy frameworks in the country are incentivising further datafication by considering health data to be a commodity. In the context of big data, I argue that when health data is viewed as a disembodied resource, access to people’s health data becomes a form of power, giving those with such access the unparalleled and unprecedented power to influence the governance of people’s bodies and lives. Recognising the interconnections between our bodies and data from within an alternative feminist framework, this paper analyses the datafication of health in India through emerging developments proposed under the National Digital Health Mission (NDHM) ecosystem, and its implications for the bodies and rights of people. This work seeks to understand how datafication contributes to the disembodiment of health data in policy frameworks; the consequences of disembodiment for how people’s health data is understood to have value and who can benefit from that value, with a focus on health insurance companies; and how acknowledging the relationship between health data and bodies within policy frameworks can empower people to safeguard their right to equitable healthcare.   More

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  • Virus detected: A profile of India’s emergent ecosystem of networked technologies to tackle Covid-19

    AWO cover page

    How useful have apps, drones, online portals, and the National Migrant Information System been to tackle Covid-19 from a public health perspective? To what extent have they impacted social control? And how have marginalised people been affected in particular? This research study maps the deployment of these technologies and the evidence available so far of their usefulness to tackle the crisis. The study was conducted as part of the Covid App project. The Covid App project is a civil society initiative that stemmed from a research interest in Covid-specific interventions – especially contact tracing apps – in countries outside Europe and North America. This shared research focus drew together six civil society organisations: ALT Advisory (South Africa), Internet Democracy Project (India), InternetLAB (Brazil), Karisma (Colombia), SMEX (Lebanon), and United for Iran. AWO, a data rights agency, provided coordination support. Over a 7‑month period, the group reviewed contact tracing apps and assessed their interaction with public health, human rights, privacy, and data protection in the six countries of focus. We conducted interviews, filed freedom of information requests, and extensively reviewed public documentation to produce in-depth country reports. Contact tracing apps cannot be evaluated in a vacuum: the research considers alternative measures, technological and others, that were deployed in response to the pandemic, and often interacted with the design and deployment of contact tracing apps themselves. Today, we publish the in-depth country reports – each accompanied by a set of recommendations – alongside an expert technical review of seven contact tracing apps from our countries of focus. We hope our contribution will support the critical evaluation of contact tracing apps and other pandemic measures. In addition, we hope to foster a discussion of safeguards – including recourse and oversight – that will better protect marginalised and vulnerable groups during public health crises, bolster human rights, democracy, and rule of law, and strengthen future pandemic response.   More

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  • What’s sex got to do with it? Mapping the impact of questions of gender and sexuality on the evolution of the digital rights landscape in India

    Taking as its starting point key High Court and Supreme Court cases in particular, this report seeks to map the many ways in which jurisprudence at the intersection of gender, sexuality, and digital rights has reduced, and at times expanded, digital rights in India. As our analysis will show, all too often, when it comes to digital rights too, anxieties surrounding women’s sexuality continue to justify court cases and jurisprudence that are geared towards protecting middle class morality and a very narrow vision of Indian culture”, rather than gender and sexuality rights. Whether women are objects or subjects of state control, the negative effect on our digital rights is considerable. This is particularly true where the right to freedom of expression is concerned, but even the lopsided ways in which the right to anonymity and to be forgotten are evolving in Indian jurisprudence is deeply reflective of this dynamic. However, another way is possible. When courts put gender and sexuality rights front and centre, this report will show, possibilities to meaningfully exercise our rights immediately expand.   More

    Research Gender, free speech, censorship

  • Cover Informed Consent Says Who

    While consent continues to be a crucial element of data protection regimes around the world, it has also been diagnosed with numerous weaknesses as a tool to promote and protect individuals’ autonomy. In this paper, we set out to learn from feminist theory around consent in general and feminist applied thinking around sexual consent in particular how consent regimes in data protection can be strengthened. We argue that such a journey will be promising because of the close entanglements between our bodies and our data. We particularly foreground feminist criticisms of the concept of property in the person” to understand in more detail the profound harms that current data practices do to our personhood, as well as the ways in which consent is currently deployed to enable and even legitimise such practices, rather than challenge or reject them. Through close engagement with feminist thinking around consent, we then develop a list of feminist principles that will need to be followed if consent is to ever be meaningful in data governance. Finally, we outline three areas of change that the application of these principles immediately points to: changes related to the collection of data; changes related to the uses of data; and changes required to protect people who are especially vulnerable in particular. Making these shifts, we argue, is essential if we are to put into place a data infrastructure that is actually empowering for, rather than exploitative of people. This paper was first published by the Data Governance Network.   More

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  • I took Allah’s name and stepped out”: Bodies, data and embodied experiences of surveillance and control during COVID-19 in India

    I took Allahs name cover page

    This paper presents a study of COVID-19 in India to illustrate how surveillance is increasing control over bodies of individuals, and how the dominant framework of data as a resource is facilitating this control. Disembodied constructions of data erase connections between data and people’s bodies and make surveillance seem innocuous. As a departure from such a framework, this study adopts a feminist bodies-as-data approach to pinpoint the specific, embodied harms of surveillance. Starting from lived experiences of marginalised communities whose voices are often left out in debates on data protection, it shows that surveillance undermines not just data privacy, but more importantly, the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of individuals. This paper was first published by the Data Governance Network.   More

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  • The Making of Political Ads: Classification as Distraction

    Internet based advertising has changed both the Internet and advertising. Efforts to understand the impacts of advertising business models rely on a distinction between ads that might be considered political and the rest. Such a classification empowers platforms to hide from scrutiny a whole lot of ads that are a basic part of an intrinsically political corpus of public discourse. Therefore, enhanced transparency for political ads, rather than shining a light, functions as a cover, obfuscating the impact of targeted and optimised ad infrastructures. In this essay, we use data collected at the Persuasion Lab (ad.watch) to problematise this central classification, and argue that the very nature of targeted ads is inherently political.   More

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  • Data sovereignty, of whom? Limits and suitability of sovereignty frameworks for data in India

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    Sovereignty is seeing renewed relevance in the age of data in India as it has become the framework of choice in a number of data governance proposals by the Indian government. To understand the scope, import and consequences of these reassertions of sovereignty, however, it is important to unpack the nature of these claims as they have been put forward. In particular, to what extent does this type of sovereignty allow for the exercise of autonomy and choice of the Indian people? This paper will demonstrate that such assessments crucially depend on how we construct the nature of data. In most dominant discourses, data is described as a resource of some sort. However, in practice the line between our physical bodies and our virtual bodies is increasingly becoming irrelevant: data, then, emerges not so much as a resource that is simply out there, but as an extension of our bodies. In order to benefit the people of India, assertions of sovereignty in the face of data colonialism will need to take these shifting realities regarding the nature of data into account. Through an assessment of policy proposals relating to sovereignty in the realm of data and new technologies, we seek to examine to what extent policy in India does indeed recognise these new realities, and what the value of these new assertions of sovereignty for the people of India consequently is.   More

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  • Unshackling expression: A study on laws criminalising expression online in Asia

    The research on India has been co-authored by Dr. Anja Kovacs and Nayantara R. Freedom of expression and opinion online is increasingly criminalised with the aid of penal and internet-specific legislation. This special issue of the Association of Progressive Communication’s Global Information Society Watch brings to light the problematic trends in the use of laws against freedom of expression in online spaces in Asia. The India chapter of the report has been authored by the Internet Democracy Project. Find the full report here. Our chapter on India has also been excerpted below.   More

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