The emergence of new technologies has digitalised markets, societies and nations. Once perceived as a strength, this proliferation of technology is now also a vulnerability. It has made tech-governance more political and social, and less about the traditional modes of regulation such as permissions, standards and tariffs.
India is among the most technology adept nations, a function of its people’s comfort with IT products and services as well as its late-mover advantage. It must now engage with a spectrum of evolving needs around law and regulation. This is necessary to accelerate population-scale opportunities and address widespread risks.
Three sets of issues emerge here – understanding the nature of technology-linked risks; assessing the challenges to governance; and being imaginative in embracing new modes of regulation.
Three sets of issues emerge here – understanding the nature of technology-linked risks, assessing the challenges to governance, and being imaginative in embracing new modes of regulation.
Let us begin with the risks, which themselves are creations of enhanced democratic access. For example, in roughly two decades India has added over a billion mobile phone subscribers, with over 50 per cent of them now using smartphones. This is transformational and unprecedented.
Improved access is credited with enabling financial inclusion, efficiency in education and healthcare, and fostering local e-commerce as well as global trade. However, a large user base is also a double-edged sword. As a result, corrective interventions need to be nimble and at digital velocity and population scale. Legacy regulation is simply ineffective.
This is best illustrated by problems plaguing social media platforms. A 2021 study found a high rate of social media misinformation in India, and attributed this in part to the country’s higher Internet penetration rate, driven by smart phones. Between June-July 2021 alone, Facebook received 1,504 user complaints in India – with a significant proportion of these related to bullying, harassment or sexually inappropriate content. Concerns are also emerging across other digital ecosystems, such as online gambling and crypto-assets. The mobile phone is a communication device, a crime scene and also an unsafe personal space.
Several state-level laws regulate or entirely prohibit betting and gambling. However, research suggests India is among the top five countries in terms of income potential from online gambling, and that the domestic online casino market may grow by 22 per cent each year. People from several states, such as Maharashtra, Telangana and Karnataka, are among the most frequent visitors to online gambling websites. The market for illegal betting and gambling in India is highly lucrative, with some estimating its value at USD 150 billion.
Offshore gambling websites often channel black money, engage in illicit transactions and launder wealth through financial intermediaries. Their operators are invariably based outside India, which makes it difficult to enforce the writ of the state. Recent investigations by bodies like the Enforcement Directorate have revealed instances of locals being hired to open bank accounts and trade through various online wallets, revealing gaps in due diligence mechanisms.
For the digital economy to flourish, it is important to evolve approaches that help resolve systemic and structural risks. It is time to reassess what is good, what is bad and what is ugly in this new digital landscape. Online gaming and online gambling must not be conflated. Similarly blockchain and sensible DeFi must not be clubbed with predatory crypto-gaming. After all, if we don’t embrace disruptive technology markets through sensible regulation, others will. A failure to capitalise may see India lose key avenues for economic growth and investment. India risk environment will then be shaped by external jurisdictions, some inimical to the country.
For instance, there are approximately 15 million crypto-asset investors in India, with total holdings of INR 400 billion. However, the regulatory and policy uncertainty has compelled crypto-asset entrepreneurs and exchanges to look to operate in more favourable markets. Exchanges such as Cryptokart, Koinex and ZebPay have exited the Indian market. ZebPay, for instance, is now headquartered in Singapore. In late 2021, many crypto-asset founders in India were considering moving their businesses to either the UAE or Singapore.
What we need today is new thinking and a new imagination of the digital world as not merely a virtual extension of the real, but an entirely different paradigm.
By banning cryptocurrencies altogether, nations such as China have missed the bus. India must leverage its position as the world’s third-fastest growing technology hub and seize the opportunity created by Beijing’s command and control ethos that is antithetical to innovation. India can and should become a global norms shaper in tech.
Tech regulation at population scale is akin to writing a new constitution for a digital nation. What we need today is new thinking and a new imagination of the digital world as not merely a virtual extension of the real, but an entirely different paradigm. There needs to be a clear-eyed understanding of what is legal, what is illegal and what may be illegal and yet requires regulations to serve and protect users and citizens.
To use a real-world analogy, since the 1990s, many countries including India have consistently distributed condoms and undertook safety campaigns among sex-workers without legalising prostitution or made available safe syringes to drug users without legalising the act. For governments and regulators, the role is no longer one of a gatekeeper that has the ability to prevent or permit activities online; it is becoming more of an ecosystem shaper and reducer of public bads.
By taxing cryptocurrency assets but not recognising these as legal tender, India has shown some welcome flexibility. It would do well to retain this nimbleness and become a co-curator of relatively safe tech platforms, services and products of the future that respond to Indian jurisdiction rather that off-shore the production of risks along with the rewards.