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Doctoral Research Explores Data Protection and Digital Privacy in India

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Erica Sudipta Basu took a sabbatical from her job in India in 2015 to pursue a master’s degree in strategic communication at American University School of Communication (AU SOC). She planned to go back to India in 2016, but, after encouragement from faculty, she ultimately decided to stay at AU for the PhD program to pursue research looking at how civil society organizations in India are influencing the discourse and policies around data protection and privacy.

“I became quite interested in that space of looking at non-state actors and how they get together and form a kind of force against the more predatory initiatives by big multinational companies,” Basu said.

Basu said her professors and especially her graduate advisor Professor Rhonda Zaharna encouraged her to apply to the PhD program while she was finishing her master’s, but she was unsure.

“I kind of thought about it a lot, but I was in two minds,” Basu said.

She finished her master’s in the summer of 2016 and eventually decided to go ahead with the PhD program. She is also teaching as an adjunct instructor in the Public Communication Department.

Basu said Professor Zaharna, the director of the Global Media program at SOC, was the reason she came to AU for her master’s.

“She was a scholar that I had been following over the years, and I really liked the work that she was doing,” Basu said. “She works in the field that I was working in and am still interested in working in, which is international media and public diplomacy.”

Basu said her research in the PhD program stemmed from her interest in the way social media platforms were entering developing countries. She wanted to figure out how the digital media space and social media platforms were impacting developing countries like India, which is where she chose to base her research in.

“I wanted to ground my work in India but look at the larger communication field in the way it was changing,” Basu said.

The PhD program is fully funded for three years. Basu said her funding will run out this summer, but she still has more work to do. She will continue her research and fund it herself.

She is currently in the process of interpreting her research and writing a first draft of her dissertation, which she hopes to be able to defend by the end of 2019.

The PhD program begins with two years of course work in which candidates take a number of core classes as well as electives. Basu chose the concentration “Media, Culture, and Democracy,” one of three thematic concentrations in the program, because she said she is interested in how media impacts culture as well as democratic institutions and processes.

In the second year of the program, the candidates write their research proposals along with taking classes. By the end of that year, they will have completed a series of essay exams and defended their proposals at which point the hefty research begins.

Basu spent some time in the summer and all of the fall semester of 2018 extensively researching her subject matter in India. During her six months of research, she went across the country to seven cities and did over 60 interviews with various stakeholders and civil society organizations in the field.

Basu hopes to ultimately make her way back to India. She is also looking into some postdoctoral fellowships that would allow her to do more research in the field.

“I might want to extend the doctoral research that I’ve done with another country in Asia or even Africa for that matter, that’s going through the same process of developing a data protection or privacy law,” Basu said. “My goal is to go back home and work in India or work with organizations that have an India focus.”