A reluctant digital power emerges from the shadows

Samir Saran

Earlier this week, the Dutch foreign ministry formally handed the reins of the Global Conference on Cyber Space (GCCS) over to the Indian government, capping a remarkable transformation in New Delhi’s cyber-politik. After being dubbed an outlier democracy that closed ranks with autocratic regimes in Internet governance, India will in 2017 be the first non-OECD country to host the GCCS. The global conference is an outcome of the 2011 “London Process”, set up to foster conversations towards “a secure, resilient and trusted global digital environment”. The GCCS, which has since travelled to Budapest, Seoul and The Hague is easily the biggest global platform of its kind. This process is shepherded by the US, UK and other European partners.

The 2017 iteration is a rite of passage both for the GCCS ­– which is now expected to open itself to a host of southern conversations on digital access and connectivity – and India, which is casting away its image as a reluctant digital power. On this count, New Delhi is now beginning to carve a new partnership with countries that it was earlier reluctant to engage through other collectives like the Non-Aligned Movement or the G-77.

India’s cyber diplomacy is reflective of its own internal transformation. The government appears willing to catalyse economic activity in this sector, engage the private sector (with an unmistakable soft spot for a public sector role as well) and create platforms like Digital India that build on and significantly expand the ambitions of previous national initiatives. New Delhi today aspires to be on the global board of directors who manage the governing architecture of the internet – strengthened by its rich and sometimes noisy debates, vibrant private sector, expanding security capabilities, entrepreneurial potential, and rich diplomatic history.

This story of this transformation began in the summer of 2015, when India understood that “multistakeholderism” was not only a posture of the strong, but also opened possibilities for those who could benefit from the “beyond government” eco-system. That its private sector is yet to seize this initiative fully is another matter. It was also important for India as a democracy to be in the right quadrant of this debate. New Delhi’s willingness to engage the liberal democracies on cyber norms and Internet governance, first as a core interlocutor and now as the host of the GCCS, is a sign of the times to come. The world’s largest democracy is today its fastest growing economy, so there is more than just normative value in the idea of Indian leadership.

An arena like the GCCS lends its host significant discursive space and agenda-setting abilities. The Netherlands used the platform to position itself as a European driver of global conversations on cyber norms, especially around stability. India must do the same. New Delhi can not only carry forward the agenda of the previous rounds but also tailor them for the next 4 billion waiting for access to cyberspace. Questions around affordable connectivity, improved quality of access and data security at the bottom of the pyramid do not serve an ethical endeavour alone; India’s pragmatic business interests are served in an environment where nearly half the world’s population are underserved by the systems and services developed in the West.

The next generation of Internet users in Asia, Africa and Latin America will rely on frugal innovation, open source software, local language computing and scalable enterprise solutions for “smart” cities or villages. These are areas in which India has shown promise or proven leadership. The GCCS should therefore serve as a platform to showcase the transformative potential of the Internet for emerging markets, and what role India can play in aiding this transformation.

The conference allows India to set a forward-looking agenda for the global digital economy, and steer the geo-political discourse on cyber stability that has been vitiated by the spate of serious, transnational electronic intrusions over the last two years.

To enable its effective stewardship of the London Process and the GCCS, India should

1) Develop the maturity to enter into, and entertain, multistakeholder conversations on issues it has normally been averse to broach: these would include offensive cyber norms, the role of the private sector in Internet governance, encryption and data integrity. Regardless of the final Indian “position” on the issue, it is important that New Delhi pays attention to the multiplicity of stakeholders and voices that influence global cyber politics.

2) Create domestic cross-sectoral buy-in to support the London Process as a host, which is a two-year responsibility that is not limited to convening the GCCS. India should go beyond the tactical selling of government programmes and strategically position itself as a global contributor willing to engage on issues that are critical to others. It may well be that the government’s flagship programmes can be replicated in other economies, but India’s private sector and civil society are crucial to fostering institutional linkages that make business and strategic inroads possible.

3) Be inclusive and welcoming to all who engage and seek to partner India as a liberal digital power and digital economy. New Delhi’s Internet diplomacy does not necessarily have to reflect its traditional moorings, because developments in cyberspace will both alter and question fundamental assumptions about global trade and data flows. In the interim, India would do well to invite capital, talent and technology, and nurture a domestic environment where they can flourish. It would be myopic not to recognise the trans-hemisphere connections and their political implications that the GCCS has now brought to bear. New Delhi must confidently pursue its engagement with advanced economies, keeping in mind its own political and economic bottomline.

4) Fashion a “whole of government” approach over the next two years and look beyond the security and ICT ministries. This effort must include other sectors that are digitalising and rely on digital technologies, and marry India’s cyber diplomacy with its economic diplomacy. It must be led by one or two cyber space envoys that India should appoint, formally or otherwise, for the next two years. And it must undertake the process of shaping the GCCS agenda immediately by engaging with as many nations as it can for the process to be inclusive.

India’s hosting of the GCCS and the London Process next year is a chance to consolidate its leadership in foreign policy frontiers like cyber and climate change, where the international regime is not yet on firm ground. New Delhi has demonstrated its willingness to move from the margins to the centre of these debates, but now it is incumbent on the government to build the eco-system that can support its diplomatic leadership. The global conference is an opportunity for India to demonstrate that multistakeholderism is sustainable, even desirable as countries chart out the social contract between their governments, internet companies and end users.

This commentary originally appeared in The Wire.


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