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India must seek to deftly institutionalise an “India Exception” in cyberspace through bilateral deals with governments and institutions that manage the internet.
Today, Den Hague will be at the centre of the cyber world as over 100 delegations assemble for the Global Conference on Cyberspace (GCCS) hosted by the Dutch government. India’s participation at such forums must factor in two important realities of the digital space.
The first challenges the core of how India conducts its diplomacy, a structural bias that seems to repose too much faith in the UN framework. Despite being the principal multilateral institution, the UN represents a legacy arrangement, too slow to govern this dynamic and rapidly evolving medium. It is frequently outflanked by the private sector, bilateral agreements and smart mini-lateral groups pursuing independent agendas. Even in the real world, the UN has been bypassed in Syria, Yemen and Iran, merely agreeing to what formations like the P5+1 decide. On the internet,the “code” is already the “law”, where every digital transaction and every user sign-up to a digital service is creating a de jure legal framework that is defining internet governance. Users and industry are determining and enforcing laws like never before, and at a speed that neither nation-states nor the UN is designed to cope with.
The second reality, however, underscores the role of the state in managing the digital commons. India’s government must play an active role in formulating the rules for the road, given its social responsibility to ensure equitable access to the one billion “unconnected” citizens for service and governance delivery. But this poses flexibility problems, as governments are incapable of being as nimble as industry or users, and government participation can be both polarising and burdensome. The poser, therefore, is how to retain agency with the government while leveraging the creative capacities outside.
These two factors must be part of any engagement calculus, and responding to them may require India to pursue a policy approach that must have four central features. First, India must seek to deftly institutionalise an “India Exception” in cyberspace through bilateral deals with governments and institutions that manage the internet. One example is how the India-US civil nuclear deal forced an acceptance of India’s exceptional status. Similarly, China’s bilateral climate deal with the US has ensured that the debate on Chinese baseline emissions has changed dramatically. Such bilateral deals are vital to the pursuit of national interest. They create direction and momentum, which other nations and institutions begin to respond to.
One attractive option for India is to work towards a bilateral “digital economy and security partnership” with the US, free from multilateral meddling and the resultant dilution of interests. Such an agreement creates the critical mass for shaping internet governance. It would bring together two large digital economies already bound by commerce. It would also signal a compact between an incumbent power and an emerging power, between developed and developing nations. If managed properly, this gain can then be socialised through smart mini-lateral arrangements with like-minded countries. This brings us to the second feature.
India should take the lead in setting up a group of experts from 15 to 20 countries in the digital sector to shape internet governance, a proverbial “D-20”. Such a forum would translate the key features of India’s bilateral agreements into global norms and bring it cyber heft. The chances of entering into effective agreements in line with core interests are far higher at this forum than with unproductive posturing at the UN, where India would have the same weight as, say, Tuvalu. The trick would be to find the correct size and composition with the correct entry parameters, open enough to allow others in as they become relevant.
Third, India should consolidate its leadership by creating ideation forums to shape the discourse, rather than opposing or reacting to others, such as the NetMundial initiative. This could take the shape of a major annual conference or summit, given critical weight by being chaired by the prime minister, and co-convened by the telecom and external affairs ministers. This would also complement the “Digital India” initiative of this administration. Such a platform must be diverse in order to present a more palatable multicolour debate, as opposed to a state-centric position.
Last, to bring all these Indian stakeholders on the same page, an Indian internet governance council must be established. Combining features of the Niti Aayog (digital economy) and a national security advisory board (cyber security), such a platform would bypass the multilateral versus multi-stakeholder debates by organising diverse Indian positions into a comprehensive whole. The government must learn to synthesise domestic opinion like a Swiss knife — common in purpose but different in deployment — so as to allow voices outside government to represent India equally effectively.
Ultimately, India must accept its own exceptionalism. It must thereafter understand how to establish it. India is in a position to shape cyberspace debates, but for that it will need to be flexible, propositional and present everywhere that internet governance is debated. Its strong and diverse contingent at The Hague is a good beginning.
The writers are at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi