We are facing challenge of Covid-19 restrictions. A whole generation is facing another unique challenge. Many senior citizens and people from socio-backward classes and communities are unable to exercise their basic right to life because they may be unable to use the electronic payment mechanisms.
By the end of 1990’s electronic commerce started getting popularity and almost by the first half of the millennium, banks of several countries had expanded their services for electronic money transactions. Soon plastic money in the forms of ATM, credit, debit cards etc., were introduced and the smart generation started relying more on plastic money rather than carrying currency in their wallets. But this proved dangerous for majority. There were physical theft of wallets and the cards, misuse of the cards, hacking of e banking systems which directly affected the card operating systems, ATM machines were unauthorizedly accessed, spycams were installed in the machines to detect the banking information including the passwords etc. Senior citizens were worst affected as most of them in countries like India could not operate the e-banking system or the cards: either they could not understand the operational mechanisms or they were not physically able to conduct the entire transactions either through the ATMs, or through their smart devices. This was due to generation gap.
With the advancement of technology, e wallets were introduced. Through online banking mechanisms, one can deposit a particular amount of money in e—wallets. However, this would not be operating as a single and independent device or mechanism. Users may connect their valid government identity proofs with e-wallets. Such e-wallets may necessarily be used through computers, smart phones etc. Everything remains virtual except the device/s that will help a user to access the online transaction mechanisms. It has been continuously stated that plastic money, e-wallets and e-banking systems are safe and better than carrying the currency.
But do we really know who is safeguarding our money in this system? A few provisions Chapter III of our very own Information Technology Act, 2000(amended in 2008) would make this clear. Chapter III discusses about electronic governance. S.6A of the Information Technology Act (IT Act), 2000, amended in 2008 is noteworthy here: it says as follows:
6A Delivery of services by service provider. -
(1) The appropriate Government may, for the purposes of this Chapter and for efficient delivery of services to the public through electronic means authorise, by order, any service provider to set-up, maintain and upgrade the computerised facilities and perform such other services as it may specify by notification in the Official Gazette. Explanation. -For the purposes of this section, service provider so authorised includes any individual, private agency, private company, partnership firm, sole proprietor firm or any such other body or agency which has been granted permission by the appropriate Government to offer services through electronic means in accordance with the policy governing such service sector.
(2) The appropriate Government may also authorise any service provider authorised under sub-section (1) to collect, retain and appropriate such service charges, as may be prescribed by the appropriate Government for the purpose of providing such services, from the person availing such service.
(3) Subject to the provisions of sub-section (2), the appropriate Government may authorise the service providers to collect, retain and appropriate service charges under this section notwithstanding the fact that there is no express provision under the Act, rule, regulation or notification under which the service is provided to collect, retain and appropriate e-service charges by the service providers.
(4) The appropriate Government shall, by notification in the Official Gazette, specify the scale of service charges which may be charged and collected by the service providers under this section: Provided that the appropriate Government may specify different scale of service charges for different types of services.
Online transactions for e-commerce purposes are directly connected with the concept of service delivery by service providers. S.6A has got two main component parts: (i) authorization to the service providers by the government to set up provisions for delivery of services in the electronic mode; and (ii) collection of service charges by the service charges. Whenever we get to see a smooth or a bumpy operation of services from the banks or from any other government or corporate authorities, we must know that there is a secret team behind that government department, bank or the corporate authority. They may be independent agencies who are commissioned by such government /bank/corporate authorities. These ‘secret teams’ perform all the technical functions for economic transactions, maintenance of the records for money transactions, maintenance of cyber security issues etc., and they are duty bound to not to violate the confidentiality of the user-data. Intact there are layers of contracts between the actual user and the bank/government/company, between such service provider and the actual users and the government etc. We know only the first layer of contracts and agreements between us, the actual users and the bank/government /company etc., who are providing us certain services or even goods. But there are several examples of violating the agreements and contracts. These ‘service providers’ know us more than we know ourselves because they know our bank details, our spending habits and even our location data too.
Considering the risk for breaching of confidentiality in all such cases S.7A of the IT Act, 2000(amended in 2008) has prescribed for auditing of documents etc., maintained in electronic forms. This Section says as follows:
“7A Audit of documents, etc., maintained in electronic form. -Where in any law for the time being in force, there is a provision for audit of documents, records or information, that provision shall also be applicable for audit of documents, records or information processed and maintained in the electronic form.”
But this is hugely neglected by many stakeholders and this loophole creates several data breaching related legal issues. The Indian legislature has also brought in the Intermediary guidelines Rules, 2021 which also shifts the liability for data protection for intermediaries in certain cases.
However, we must not forget that there is digital divide in our societies. Adults including men, women and people belonging to LGBTQ communities may not always access information and digital communication systems and services. This is a universal problem. Women may not be empowered to use electronic devices in socio-economically backward classes and communities. Not to forget that even though Indian constitution mandates for equal pay for all, women may not always get equal pay in unorganized sectors. Many households in India as well as in many Asian countries do not allow women to take any decision related to family-finances. But there are situations when people are forced to use electronic payment/transaction systems. Covid-19 pandemic is one such situation where the WHO advised to reduce usage of anything which may transmit the viruses from people to people: reduction of usage of currency notes were also suggested as it was understood that the materials in the currency notes may get wet with sweat, saliva etc., and this may be extremely dangerous since it might increase the risk of spreading of pandemic. But there are new researches coming up every day which are suggesting how to take precautions while dealing with papers (including materials which are used to make currency notes) or clothes during pandemic times.
In all such cases, aren’t our constitutional rights get violated if the government or any other stakeholder insists on e-transactions? It actually does.
Answer to this question may be found in S.9 of the IT Act, 2000(amended in 2008). This says as follows:
Sections 6, 7 and 8 not to confer right to insist document should be accepted in electronic form.-Nothing contained in sections 6, 7 and 8 shall confer a right upon any person to insist that any Ministry or Department of the Central Government or the State Government or any authority or body established by or under any law or controlled or funded by the Central or State Government should accept, issue, create, retain and preserve any document in the form of electronic records or effect any monetary transaction in the electronic form.
Nonetheless, the above mentioned provision empowers all who may not be able to use or who may want to refuse the use of electronic payment system. But this may not always be considered as the Rule: this is rather Exceptio probat regulam (an exception proves the rule) in the era of internet. Even though the government and other corporate stakeholders may extend their services on humanitarian grounds to help those who may not be able to use the digital payment systems or the e-wallets etc., people’s trust may easily be broken by gross misuse of the powers that such ‘helpers’ may have: ATM debit cards may be stolen, data may be compromised, e-wallets may be illegally operated by such ‘volunteers’ who may want to gain illegal and unethical profits at the cost of innocent people.
It will take longer time to make people from all backgrounds aware about electronic payment modes. It will probably take even longer to control cyber criminality targeting vulnerable people. One must not violate the legal norms and constitutional principles to make the right to life of others almost unachievable. Vulnerable groups including senior citizens, disabled people, socio-economically backward communities, women and children must be given enough protection to gain their trust so that all can survive and win over adverse situations.
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