Culture, Meet Privacy

Indian culture is just beginning to come to terms with the concept of privacy. This is necessary for privacy regulation to succeed.

In Indian culture, privacy is an alien concept. Our crowded public spaces, unique family structures and emphasis on sharing allow for more people to step into our personal spaces. The radius of what we consider ‘private’ is small. No wonder it is taking us so much time to wrap our heads around ‘every person’s inherent right to privacy.’ Maybe this is why we’ve not had a strong enough privacy law yet.

The good news is that this cultural view of what we call ‘private’ is changing. Old patterns of thinking are giving way to new ideas. This would explain the current flurry of news around privacy, including the importance the Supreme Court is giving it.

Privacy and Culture

Privacy is comprised of several small, relatable components. For instance, anonymity, intimacy, seclusion and reserve are all different aspects of how we look at privacy. To demonstrate how culture and privacy are tied together, two scientists published a study in the International Journal of Sociology of the Family in 1992. They studied privacy preferences of people belonging to diametrically different backgrounds: Indians and North Americans. The study measured the subjects on six privacy parameters: anonymity, reserve, intimacy, non-neighbouring, seclusion and solitude.

They found that Indians tended to report a lower need for privacy than their American counterparts. The authors concluded that the typical family structures, the density of the home environment, and contemporary cultural changes impacted the need for privacy. The study reveals fascinating truths about our privacy preferences. For instance, Indians were found not to have a great preference for ‘seclusion’ because they were used to sharing physical space with others.

If anything, this reinforces the sweeping statement with which this piece began: Indian culture does not emphasize privacy and individual space. And our half-boiled regulations related to privacy reflect this.

Social Attitudes Inspire Policy

Paradigms, or established ways of thinking, are not permanent. Eventually, one gives way to another. These shifts may take place through a change in the policy narrative, or a nudge from the government (like a breakthrough judgment), or even an incident strong enough to shake the nation into changing its set patterns.

These shifts expose the problems with the way things are, and open up opportunities for change. The proverbial ‘Window of Opportunity’ of policy-making opens. Much policy change in this manner. The ban on Sati? The British were taken aback at the barbaric practice of widows jumping in their husbands’ funeral pyres. The Criminal Law Amendment Act of 2013? A tragic rape incident shook the nation out of its limbo.

Get On The Privacy Train

Right now, a fundamental change is taking place in the way we look at privacy. This could be due to how porous technology has been, our increasing urbanization, and greater exposure to other cultures. These past few months have been remarkable for the way we think of privacy, and will hopefully inspire good regulation one day.

We have started thinking of privacy differently thanks to more exposure to other cultures and norms. Think about how often you hear or read the words ‘privacy’ and ‘data’ and ‘breach of privacy.’ The proceedings before the Supreme Court have also ruled the headlines for a few weeks now, nudging many Indians to think more about privacy. A window of opportunity has opened up for legislation to keep pace with where our society is headed. We must make the most of it.

About the author

Manasa Venkataraman

Manasa is a Research Associate at the Takshashila Institution. She is a graduate of Government Law College, Mumbai and transitioned to public policy after working as a corporate lawyer in Mumbai. She works on issues at the intersection of technology, law and policy, with a specific focus on privacy and data protection.