Times of India, November 20, 2017
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If India has in the past punched below its weight on digital governance, its hosting of the Global Conference on Cyber Space today promises to change that. The GCCS, conceived in 2011 as the ‘London Process’, is the most influential forum on internet governance and cyber security. That India is the first non-OECD country to curate this platform is indicative of its determination to be a policy entrepreneur on digital issues.
There is good reason India can and should aspire for leadership in this space. It is today the fastest growing ‘data economy’. The characterisation of data as the new ‘oil’ is unsurprising, considering it will contribute billions of dollars to global economic output. But data is better thought of as currency. After all, data is regularly exchanged among developers, advertisers and consumers for services, and its value, like currency, is linked to capability of the geography in which it resides and the precise context in which it is traded.
Research from McKinsey reveals cross-border data flows have quadrupled over the past decade, outstripping trade in goods: data is the new driver of globalisation. By 2020, there will be 5,200 GB of data for every person on earth. The ubiquity of data, however, will also require new global institutions, similar to ones created to manage energy supplies and financial flows in the 20th century. It will necessitate new normative principles on cybersecurity and internet rights.
Today’s digital heavyweights are writing rules to retain their stranglehold over data capture and analytics. Developing countries are the fountainhead of data, but the risk is that data regimes will favour those who have the power to access and analyse it. If the European conquests of Latin America, Africa and Asia teach any lessons, it is that those who possess natural resources do not always benefit from the value they generate.
In the past, control over energy resources and financial institutions were key to exerting power. Platforms like OPEC and the World Bank were instrumental in securing geoeconomic interests of advanced economies. This is unlikely to change unless new actors can conduct ‘data diplomacy’ in order to ensure international regimes do not continue to only serve the interests of a few.
With a billion-plus population, India’s economy is sitting on a digital reserve that is invaluable. Unlike other states where the accumulation of data is largely a private endeavour, India’s unique identity project has stimulated a public data-driven, digital economy.
This public engagement has also made digital development more democratic. No other large database like Aadhaar has been subject to as much scrutiny and debate anywhere in the world. Most technology companies hide behind intellectual property and opaque business practices. Aadhaar, in contrast, has witnessed fierce discussions around privacy, leading to its recognition as a fundamental right recently by the Supreme Court of India.
It has universal security designed as a public service and features that are evolved through open debate and legislative sanction. Additionally, while global companies tend to stifle local innovation (or ignore it), Aadhaar provides an enabling platform for start-ups.
If global rules on data governance are to be different from those of energy and finance, India’s cyber diplomacy must be propositional in forums where the issue is debated.
Like its climate change diplomacy, India must be proactive in carving out its own exceptionalism. This could include bilateral arrangements with cyber powers like the US and EU, creating critical mass for norms on internet governance. Eventually, India could also host annual summits of like-minded emerging markets (a ‘digital OPEC’) capable of improving collective bargaining power over data governance. The power of bilaterals, plurilaterals and multilaterals must all be harnessed.
Second, India must use standard setting to its advantage. This year, WhatsApp announced it would integrate the Unified Payments Interface to offer financial solutions. The integration of Indian standards into digital payments of multinationals has strategic implications. With over a billion users, whatever standards India sets for digital ecosystems have the potential to become the default option across emerging markets.
Third, India’s development assistance strategy must centre around digital spaces. The next billion users will emerge from Asia and Africa. Companies like Facebook and Google are already racing to acquire their personal data, ostensibly for increasing connectivity.
For developing countries however, the tradeoff is control over such data. India can proposition an Aadhaar-based alternative – one that is seen to be a ‘privacy first’ solution that lets governments retain jurisdiction over their data, while allowing indigenous enterprises to flourish. This gives it the capacity to hardwire its influence in emerging markets.
Fourth, unlike natural resources, the wellspring for data is the individual herself. Governing data is unlikely to be a state led affair. Civil society and businesses in emerging markets are equally crucial in framing the rules of the game for digital spaces.
While current models of ‘multi-stakeholderism’ allow for a certain decentralisation of decision making, it is heavily dominated by trans-Atlantic actors. New Delhi must lead in incubating new voices from the developing world, and help shape their views on the regime complex for governing data. This will address some developing country imperatives, such as promoting affordable access, platform security and local content.
The sheer size of India’s market lends it enormous bargaining power in conversations on cyberspace. To become a key stakeholder in the digital economy, New Delhi must advance these goals by investing in global institutions, normative principles, technical standards and new voices.