Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, Democratic Countries, Digital India, Infrastructure, tech and media

Digital Public Infrastructure – lessons from India

Public infrastructure has been a cornerstone of human progress. From the transcontinental railways of the nineteenth century to telecommunication in the twentieth century, infrastructure has been vital to facilitating the flow of people, money and information. Built on top of public infrastructure, democratic countries with largely free markets have fostered public and private innovation and, therefore, generated considerable value creation in societies.

In the twenty-first-century, technological innovation has created a tempest of ideological, geographical and economic implications that pose new challenges. The monopolisation of public infrastructure, which plagued previous generations, has manifested itself in the centralised nature of today’s digital infrastructure. It is increasingly evident that the world needs a third type of public infrastructure, following modes of transport such as ports and roads, and lines of communication such as telegraph or telecom – but with open, democratic principles built in.

​​Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) can fulfil this need, though it faces several challenges. There is a disturbing trend of the weaponisation of data and technology – or “Digital Colonisation” (Hicks, 2019) – resulting in a loss of agency, sovereignty and privacy. Therefore, proactively deliberating on how to build good DPI is key to avoiding such challenges.

The monopolisation of public infrastructure, which plagued previous generations, has manifested itself in the centralised nature of today’s digital infrastructure.

To begin with, it is important to crystallise what DPI is and what it does. Put simply, foundational DPIs mediate the flow of people, money and information. First, the flow of people through a digital ID System. Second, the flow of money through a real-time fast payment system. And third, the flow of personal information through a consent-based data sharing system to actualise the benefits of DPIs and to empower the citizen with a real ability to control data. These three sets become the foundation for developing an effective DPI ecosystem.

India, through India Stack[1], became the first country to develop all three foundational DPIs: digital identity (Aadhar[2]), real-time fast payment (UPI[3]) and a platform to safely share personal data without compromising privacy (Account Aggregator built on the Data Empowerment Protection Architecture or DEPA) (Roy, 2020). Each DPI layer fills a clear need and generates considerable value across sectors.

However, like in the case of physical infrastructure, it is important that DPIs not succumb to monopolisation, authoritarianism and digital colonisation. This can only happen through a jugalbandi (partnership) of public policy and public technology, i.e., through a techno-legal framework. Techno-legal regulatory frameworks are used to achieve policy objectives through public-technology design. For example, India’s DEPA offers technological tools for people to invoke the rights made available to them under applicable privacy laws. Framed differently, this techno-legal governance regime embeds data protection principles into a public-technology stack.

When aggregated, foundational DPIs constitute the backbone of a country’s digital infrastructure. These layers interface with each other to create an ecosystem that facilitates seamless public service delivery and allows businesses to design novel solutions on top of the DPI layers. In turn, this enables the creation of Open Networks as not seen before. India is now developing such open networks for credit (Open Credit Enablement Network[4]), commerce (Open Network for Digital Commerce[5]), Open Health Services Network (UHI[6]) and many more. When DPIs are integrated, they can generate network effects to create these open networks for various sectors.

Following India’s successful experiment, there is a desire across the world to replicate it (Kulkarni, 2022)[7]. Countries can choose from three potential models to mediate the flow of people, money and information: the DPI model, Web3 and the Big Tech model. Of these three, DPI has emerged as the most feasible model due to its low cost, interoperability and scalable design, and because of its safeguards against monopolies and digital colonisation.

For India’s DPI success to become a worldwide revolution, three types of institutions must be built. First, we need independent DPI steward institutions. It is important to have a governance structure that is agile and responsive. A multiparty governance process through independent DPI institutions will be accountable to a broad range of stakeholders rather than be controlled by a single entity or group. This can build trust and confidence in DPI. India has created the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP[8]), adopted by nine nations and with already more than 76 million active users. MOSIP is housed at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IITB), an independent public university. IIITB’s stewardship has been critical to MOSIP’s success.

A multiparty governance process through independent DPI institutions will be accountable to a broad range of stakeholders rather than be controlled by a single entity or group.

Secondly, we need to develop global standards through a multilateral dialogue led by India. If standards originating from developed nations were transplanted to an emerging economies’ context without deferring to their developmental concerns, smaller countries would simply be captive to dominant technology players. Additionally, without these standards, Big Tech would likely engage in regulatory arbitrage to concentrate power.

Finally, we need to develop sustainable financing models for developing DPI for the world. Currently backed by philanthropic funding, such models are at risk of becoming a tool of philanthropic competition and positioning.
The world needs a new playbook for digital infrastructure that mediates the flow of people, money and information. This will facilitate countries looking to digitally empower their citizens. They can then rapidly build platforms that address the specific needs of people, while ensuring people are able to trust and use the platform – without fear of exclusion or exploitation.


Hicks, J. (2019) Digital Colonialism’: Why countries like India want to take control of data from Big TechThePrint.  (Accessed: January 25, 2023).

Kulkarni, S. (2022) Emerging economies keen to replicate India’s Digital Transformation: KantETCIO. The Economic Times. (Accessed: February 3, 2023).

Roy, A. (2020) Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture: Draft for Discussion. NITI Aayog. (Accessed: January 25, 2023).


[1] See

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big tech, Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, Cyber Space, India, media and internet, Tech Regulations, U.S., USA and Canada

Accountable Tech: Will the US take a leaf out of the Indian Playbook?

2024 is a decisive year for democracy and the liberal order. 1.8 billion citizens in India and the United States, who together constitute nearly 1/4th of the world’s population, are going to elect their governments in the very same year. This will be the first such instance in a world increasingly mediated and intermediated by platforms, who will be crucial actors shaping individual choices, voter preferences, and indeed, outcomes at these hustings. It is therefore, important to recognise these platforms as actors and not just benign intermediaries.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, especially in its second term, has approached digital regulation with the objective of establishing openness, trust and safety, and accountability. In June this year, Union Minister of State for Electronics & Technology, Rajeev Chandrasekhar, invited public inputs on the draft amendments to the IT Rules 2021 with an ‘open, safe and trusted, accountable internet’ as the central area of focus.

Runaway platforms and cowboy capitalism are the big dangers to the sanctity of our elections and to the citizens’ acceptance of political outcomes.

This Indian aspiration for Accountable Tech must be an imperative for all liberal and open societies if we are to enrich the public sphere, promote innovation and inclusive participation, and indeed, defend democracy itself. If we fail to act now and act in unison, we could end up perverting the outcomes in 2024. Runaway platforms and cowboy capitalism are the big dangers to the sanctity of our elections and to the citizens’ acceptance of political outcomes. India has clearly seen the need for it and is striving to make large tech companies accountable to the geographies they serve. The latest comer who seems to have understood the importance of this is the United States of America.

On 8 September 2022, the White House convened a Listening Session on Tech Platform Accountability ‘with experts and practitioners on the harms that tech platforms cause and the need for greater accountability’. The session ‘identified concerns in six key areas: competition; privacy; youth mental health; misinformation and disinformation; illegal and abusive conduct, including sexual exploitation; and algorithmic discrimination and lack of transparency.’ Hopefully, this session will lead to a more contemporary regulatory and accountability framework that aligns with what is underway in India.

From private censorship and unaccountable conversations hosted by intermediaries to propagation of polarised views, all of them constitute a clear and present danger to democracies, and certainly to India and the US, who are among the most plural, open, and loud digital societies. Digital India is indeed going to be ground zero of how heterogenous, diverse, and open societies co-exist online and in the real world. The efforts of the Indian government to put together sensible regulation may actually benefit many more geographies and communities. If India can create a model that works in the complex human terrain of India, variants of it would be applicable across the world.

The efforts of the Indian government to put together sensible regulation may actually benefit many more geographies and communities.

It must also be understood that there is no single approach to manage platforms, even though there could be a wider and shared urge to promote openness, trust and safety, and accountability. The regulations that flow from this ambition are necessarily going to be contextual and country specific.

Hence, it is important that India, the US, and other large digital hubs coordinate and collaborate with each other to defend these universal principles even as they institute their own and region-specific regulations. For instance, policy architecture in the US will focus on managing platforms and technology companies operating under American law and consistent with their constitutional ethos. India, on the other hand, has the onerous task of ensuring that these same corporations adhere to Indian law and India’s own constitutional ethic.

India and the US lead the free world in terms of global social media users. As of January 2022, India had 329.65 million Facebook23.6 million Twitter, and 487.5 million WhatsApp (June 2021) users, while the US had 179.65 million Facebook, 76.9 million Twitter, and 79.6 million WhatsApp (June 2021) users. The online world is no longer a negligible part of society. Most people online see the medium as an agency additive and are keen to use it to further their views and influence others’ thinking. Of these, many are also influencers in their own localities. What transpires online now has a population scale impact. The mainstream media reads from it, social media trends define the next day’s headline and the debates on primetime television.

Policy architecture in the US will focus on managing platforms and technology companies operating under American law and consistent with their constitutional ethos.

Thus, the idea that one can be casual in managing content on these platforms is no longer feasible and will have deleterious consequences as recent developments have shown. Intermediary liability, that sought to insulate platforms from societal expectations, needs to be transformed to a notion of intermediary responsibility. It must now become a positive and a proactive accountability agenda where the platforms become a part of responsible governance and responsible citizenship.

Predictable regulation is also good for business and policy arbitrage harms corporate planning; so, platforms too have a stake in making their board rooms and leadership accountable. They must make their codes and designs contextual and stop hiding behind algorithmic decision-making that threatens to harm everyone, including their own future growth prospects. And this must be the ambition as we head into 2024–the year when technology could decide the fate of the free world.

Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, European Union, tech and media, USA and Canada

Digital democracies and virtual frontiers: How do we safeguard democracy in the 4IR?

Thank you Tom, and thank you Amb. Power for inviting me to speak on this important issue. Let me congratulate her and the US government for really beginning to respond to the challenges of intrusive tech. That has to be one of the issues that global civic actors, thinkers, and even political leaders must devote time and energy on. I think intrusive tech will take away the gains of the past.

Let me start with something Amb. Power mentioned. The Arab Spring powered by social media levelled the divide—even if briefly—between the palace and the street. The ‘Age of Digital Democracy’ possibly began then. Technology has become the mainstay of civic activism since. Not only are more voices heard in our parts of the world, even elected governments are also more responsive to them. Intrusive tech can undo the gains and I think Amb. Power was absolutely right in stressing on some of the issues that need to be addressed.

The past year also has made us aware of the threats and weaknesses to digital democracies. First, the very platforms that have fuelled calls for accountability often see themselves as above scrutiny, bound not by democratic norms but by bottom-lines. However, acquisition metrics and market valuations don’t sustain democracy too well. The contradiction between short-term returns on investment and the long-term health of a digital society is stark. Hate, violence, and falsehoods drive engagement, and therefore, profits for companies and platforms, our societies are indeed on shaky ground, and this is one area where we must intervene.

We must also ask: Are digital infrastructure and services proprietary products or are they public goods? The answer is obvious. To make technology serve democracy, tech regulations must be rethought. I think this debate needs to be joined. Big Tech boardrooms must be held to standards of responsible behaviour that match their power to persuade and influence. The framework must be geography neutral. Rules that govern Big Tech in the North can’t be dismissed with a wink and a nudge in the South and this is again something civic actors must emphasise  on.

Second – and this is important, much of Big Tech is designed and anchored in the US. Understandably, it pushes American—or perhaps Californian—free speech absolutism. This is in conflict with laws in most democracies—including in the US after the 6 January Capitol attack. While protecting free speech, societies seek safeguards to prevent undesirable consequences, especially violence. If American Big Tech wishes to emerge as global Tech, it must adhere to democratic norms globally. Its normative culture must assimilate and reconcile, not prescribe and mandate. Absent such understanding, a clash of norms is visible and already upon us. It is going to erode our gains.

Finally, a key threat emanates from authoritarian regimes with technological capabilities. They seek to perversely influence open societies by weaponising the very freedoms they deny their own people. In their virtual world, Peng Shuai is free and happy; in their real world, she is under house arrest—a new meaning to the term ‘virtual reality’. Confronted by wolf warriors, the rest of us can’t be lambs to the slaughter.

Open societies have always defended their borders stoutly and they must also safeguard the new digital frontlines. In 2024, the two most vibrant democracies will go to elections in the same year, the first time in our digital age, we must not allow authoritarian states or their agents to manipulate public participation at the hustings.

As I conclude let me leave you with a thought: It’s not darkness alone that kills democracy; runaway technology, steeped in nihilism, could strangulate it. Just scroll down your social media feed this evening…

Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, Cyber Security, Digital India, Multilareism, tech and media

On the Cusp of Digital History: Nine Lessons for the Future

s we step into a year of uncertainties after a disruptive year of the pandemic, there is only one universal certitude: 2021 will witness the increasing adoption of technology as innovation gathers extraordinary speed. Clearly, our digital future is exciting, but it is hazy too. There are galactic black holes; and even that which is visible is overwhelming.

Despite acknowledging the need for critical discourse, our pace of enquiry, examination and action has been lethargic and out of step with the motivations of coders hardwiring our future through soft interventions. They are changing economies, societies, politics and, indeed, the very nature of humanity at an astonishing speed and with far-reaching consequences.

Nations that effectively respond to the advent of the Digital Era will be in the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and will emerge stronger as the 21st century approaches high noon. Others will suffer the adverse consequences of the coming digital disruptions.

At the turn of the decade, Delhi hosted a stellar set of thinkers and speakers at the annual CyFy conference organised by the Observer Research Foundation, which focused on technology, security and society. Here are nine takeaways from the debates and discussions that threw up a kaleidoscope of scintillating ideas.


hat the US accomplished in the 20th century, China has set out to achieve in the 21st. The first takeaway from the CyFy debates is that China’s surge will continue, and it will profoundly change the world order. The US and its partners are witnessing the inexorable rise of an authoritarian digital power with the COVID-19 pandemic emboldening


Beijing to tighten its surveillance and suppression networks—bolstered by big data, facial recognition, et al.

The China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), a defence contractor, for instance, pitches such future applications as detecting ‘abnormal behaviour’ on surveillance cameras or among online streamers. These applications intimate such detections to law enforcement agencies.[i] Several regimes around the world are attracted to these Chinese offerings, which enable them to control their citizens.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic Consensus is in total disarray. Europe is intent upon carving out its niche in emerging technologies while promoting new technology champions to challenge American tech dominance. After taking over the European Union presidency, Germany has called for the expansion of digital sovereignty as the leitmotif of EU’s digital policy.[ii] A new Digital Services Act may fundamentally alter intermediary liability and mark a new milestone in digital rights and freedoms.[iii]

Across the Atlantic, the US has made its fear of China Tech apparent but is yet to initiate a coherent effort to build an influential digital alliance as a sustained response to China’s relentless digital expansionism. Which brings us to the central geopolitical question: Can the US and Atlantic nations, currently marred by divisions and domestic disquiet, get their act together to respond to this emergence? Authoritarian tech is at the gates: Does the West have the resolve to respond? Will a new Administration in Washington, DC herald a new and meaningful approach? Or will America continue to turn inwards?

China will not offer any negotiated space. Beijing’s offer will be binary, so will be the outcomes. It is, therefore, imperative for a club of technology-savvy countries to come together if liberalism is to be preserved in our digital century.


o say that the international order is failing and floundering is not to state anything startlingly new; it’s only to underscore the bleakness of the global reality. However, like the proverbial silver lining, there is a degree of optimism around the role and centrality of smaller groupings. Regional partnerships, alliances of democracies, and plurilateral arrangements between nations with focused engagements and specific purpose platforms are seen to be important in these turbulent times. This is best exemplified by Australia, India and Japan—who with an eye towards China and propelled by their shared interest in a free, fair, inclusive, non-discriminatory and transparent trade regime—are banding together for a Supply Chain Resilience Initiative.[iv]

These small groupings, built around shared but limited objectives, are dying multilateralism’s lifeline. The Year of the Pandemic and its resultant disruptions have left the world with few options. One of them is to begin rebuilding multilateralism with smaller groups of countries with aligned interests. Hopefully, over time, this will lead to an efficient, inclusive international order.

India, Japan and Australia have taken on the responsibility abdicated by the US of building a resilient, vibrant, secure technology network in the Indo-Pacific. The role of the EU, ASEAN (more difficult due to deep divisions) and democracies in the Indo-Pacific in defending and strengthening norms and laws associated with technology and politics was elaborated loudly and clearly at CyFy.

States matter and the leadership of individual nations will have to drive the global arrangements that will best serve this century. While dialogue with geopolitical adversaries remains critical, meaningless consensus-driven multilateral approaches are not viable in a world fundamentally fractured along political, economic and ideological fault lines. We need action, not pious declarations. Given the pace at which emerging technologies are evolving, organisations like the UN are too slow, unwieldy and politically compromised to have any significant impact.


n the post-COVID-19 era, globalisation as we have known it will be in tatters, yet decoupling will be more difficult than before. There is a simplistic assumption that you can decouple your digital world from the real world. This is not so. If you exclude entities from your digital platforms, it will be difficult to sustain traditional trade in goods and services with them. Commerce and connectivity of the future will have a different texture.

As economic growth, national identities and digital technologies collide, “Gated Globalisation” will be the new mantra. With interdependence no longer fashionable, supply chains will be shaped by rising national security concerns. Increasingly, cross-border flows of data, human capital and emerging technologies are viewed as vulnerabilities. A focus on autonomy and indigenous capabilities has accompanied growing incidents of cross-border cyber operations and cyberattacks.

Commerce may be conditioned on norms along the lines of what the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) seeks to do with the digital economy. The Blue Dot Network and supply chain initiatives may all end up creating layers of permissions and permits that will create toll plazas on digital freeways. The digital domain was built on the assumption of hyper interconnectedness. Will it be able to grow with mushrooming policy barriers?


new and fascinating dynamic is rapidly emerging between democracies and technologies, raising an interesting question: If a democratic state tames technologies, can democracy survive? This question has been posed by Marietje Schaake, the International Policy Director at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center.[v] Technology is being co-opted into a ‘techno-nationalist’ narrative: The melding of a country’s national interest with its technological capabilities while excluding ‘others’. This techno-nationalist narrative often emanates from tech giants who are increasingly speaking in the state’s protectionist language. Mark Zuckerberg’s written statement ahead of US Congressional anti-trust hearings was couched in the language of protecting the core American values of openness and fairness, as opposed


to China’s (authoritarian) vision.[vi]

The corollary to that is equally true and prompts another question: Can democracies survive if they do not regulate technologies? The isolating and polarising effects of social media, for instance, have already resulted in a slew of analysts chanting the dirge for democracy.[vii] The answers to these questions are unclear, but it is certainly true that the protection of the public sphere, the integrity of political regimes, and the robustness of conversations must be common aspirations should we want democracy to survive and strengthen.

Be it regulations, education, incentives, ethics or norms, we will have to dig deeper into our toolbox to come up with answers that would allow this to happen. Currently, the negative impacts of technology on our evolving and fractured societies are threatening to overwhelm its promise and potential. Can a new regulatory compact emerge that negotiates the digital ethics for corporations, communities and governments? This decade will witness an unspoken contest over writing this new code of ethics. It remains to be seen whose code will prevail and, more importantly, for what purpose.


e cannot overlook the changes that the relationship between big companies, technology and societies has undergone. If successive anti-trust actions in the US, EU, Australia, India and elsewhere are any indication,[viii] accountable boardrooms are now an expectation and will soon be a reality; the shape it will take will be defined by the debates taking place around the world. We can be certain that in the coming years, corporate governance is not going to be the same.

Large companies, having dominance and influence, will need to be more responsive to the communities they serve. The blueprint of new corporate governance cannot but be influenced by the needs of the locality; the nature of the framework will have to be contextual and culturally sensitive. Since mammoth corporations determine our very agency and choice, it is part of their fiduciary duty to ensure that the interests of the company and the community are ethically aligned.

Outside corporate boardrooms, we cannot ignore the role of coders or programmers in Bengaluru, Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv and other tech hubs. As we become increasingly reliant on software, can we let coders be the new cowboys of the Wild West without any accountability? As we get further entangled in the intricate web of algorithms, it has become clear that we need to demystify them. No more black box responses, no more unaccountable algorithms. What we need are programmers who are held responsible for the impact their codes make on people’s lives. We need algorithms that are not only transparent but also seen to be so.


he pandemic has made us reassess our approach to life and behaviour. We consume, we communicate, and we integrate using technology. Nearly a year on, COVID-19 has not only furthered technology’s invasion of our lives but also brought to the fore new realities, especially regarding privacy. The deepening concern over privacy is intertwined with the change in the ownership of data. The pandemic provided the pretext to alter the role played by big corporations and the control of the state over technological devices, products and services.[ix]

The digitalisation of our day-to-day lives may enable an unprecedented level of personalised oversight over individual behaviour. In its mildest form, this can be ‘libertarian paternalism’, a nudging predicated on the belief that individual choices are rarely made on the basis of complete information and are instead a product of psychological biases. At the other end of the spectrum, the ‘gamification’ of citizenship under this new paradigm would be the ultimate realisation of the Hobbesian social contract, whereby the Leviathan would be entrenched in every aspect of citizens’ lives.

In order to retain the ownership of data and individual autonomy, all these changes must be accompanied by the strengthening of our resolve to defend individual choice, freedom and rights by formulating adequate laws that would ensure that the values we create serve us, the people.


he world needs a new social contract—a digital social contract. The pandemic has thrown the old workplace order into a state of flux, thereby, reopening the debate surrounding the provision of the three Ps: Paycheck, protection and purpose to individuals. The equivalent of 475 million full-time jobs vanished in the second quarter of 2020[x] and many others found themselves without health insurance and other benefits typically linked to work contracts at the greatest time of their need. To ‘build back better’, the new order is being shaped by new terms of contract and employment, concepts of social protection and minimum wage for all, and the altered role of the state, big tech and individuals. The global shift towards virtual workspaces also provides an opportunity to induct a more diverse work force, especially individuals from historically marginalised communities. However, we need to take note of the challenges that might accompany these changes—such as ensuring safe, inclusive digital workspaces, keeping pace with ever-changing technology, meeting the demand for human skills, and coping with the displacement of jobs. As we move to a more ‘virtual first’ work environment, we need to make sure that nobody is left behind.

Meaningful engagement with vulnerable communities necessarily involves outreach by governments as well as large technology firms, both of whom have benefited from the data of these communities. It is, therefore, the responsibility of both to build bridges with the communities that would be most vulnerable to the disruptive impact of the technologies they build and benefit from. We must take advantage of this moment to forge technology that will be in service of humanity—taking ‘people-centered innovation’ from a buzzword to actual practice.


n intense battle is being waged against the Infodemic, which is running parallel to the battle against the Pandemic. Misinformation, the darkest shade of grey in the Chrome Age, is now being used to destabilise businesses and political systems, and dissolve the social cohesion shared by individuals. “Misinformation costs lives”,[xi] and the Infodemic has led to uncountable preventable deaths.


No amount of digital distancing is helping curb the spread of fake news. This emergence of a highly polarised information system should be effectively countered by a new guarantor of the public domain. No single agent can ever ensure the integrity of the global information system. The answer, therefore, lies in the coming together of all the three important actors—the state, big tech and the public.

The state should help denounce disinformation and simultaneously promote high quality content. Big tech can devise algorithms to filter out such misinformation, curtail the financial incentive acquired through it and display a higher sense of responsibility. Indeed, if platforms can display the same energy and responsiveness they did during the US elections in other jurisdictions, we may have some hope for a tenable solution.

Finally, the public should expand their information base by incorporating different sources of information, reading before posting on social media, and exposing and reporting fake news. It is only through the realisation of collective responsibility that we can hope to find a ‘vaccine’ for the Infodemic.


n a gloomy landscape of various shades of grey, we are at last beginning to see some light and some white. The emergence of a technology moment where communities are beginning to find their voices and change the course of their future, provides a glimmer of hope. Across the world, especially in Asia and Africa, people are discovering, nurturing and shaping new aspirations and goals for themselves by using technology. The African Union highlighted the need to diversify, develop and assert ownership over its digital society and economy.[xii] Community data has transformed from a fringe idea to a mainstream policy debate, receiving a nod, for instance, in India’s Non-Personal Data Governance Framework.[xiii]

Even as the pandemic upended our lives, we saw governments deploying technology for the greater social good; we saw businesses respond to it with extreme ingenuity; and we also saw women seizing this moment and retaining agency.

The post-pandemic era offers us an opportunity to build a more diverse and inclusive digital order. We can, and must, redefine diversity and support minorities and women to play a key role as a new world emerges from the debris of the war on COVID-19. The world today once again stands on the cusp of history. It cannot afford to fail in laying a new foundation which is free of the of the frailties of the past.

Cyber and Internet Governance, Cyber and Technology, Cyber Security, Strategic Studies, terrorism

Technology and Terror: A new era of threat in a borderless online world

Terror requires spectacle to thrive and technology has allowed this opera of violence to find new audiences and locales.

Technology, Terror, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Digital Terror, ISIS, Online Recruitment, Kabir Taneja, Samir Saran, Syria, Islamists, Do-It-Yourself, DIY, Terrorism, Kalashnikovs, Crypto currency, Western, Eastern, Christchurch, VPN

From ISIS attaching a GoPro camera to a home-made armed drone in Syria to Islamists from the Democratic Republic of Congo uploading 4K videos pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, cyberspace and emerging technologies are facilitating terrorist activities at an unprecedented scale. The convergence of technology and terrorism represents the worst kind of feedback loop between the real and the virtual. States, meanwhile, are struggling to respond to this convergence and to balance the imperatives of national security and the freedoms afforded in cyberspace.

Given the complex structural drivers of terrorism and the trade-offs involved in regulating technology, it is imperative that policy makers first assess the real and evolving dimensions of the challenge. The popular conceptual understanding of this menace is that like war, terrorism is simply politics by other means. Whoever the actor may be, terrorism is a violent expression of alternative political values and norms for organizing societies. Motivations may vary but violence is the principal instrumentality for recruiting, propagating and financing this perverse politics. And like mainstream politics, terrorist organizations have co-opted technology as a force multiplier in achieving their objectives.

Like mainstream politics, terrorist organizations have co-opted technology as a force multiplier in achieving their objectives.

As has been suggested by many scholars, terror requires spectacle to thrive and technology has allowed this opera of violence to find new audiences and locales. The Christchurch shootings in New Zealand is perhaps the most obvious example — with the shooter streaming his actions live on social media. New communication platforms afford scale and impact at virtually no cost, a service that terrorists have used with impunity and agility over the years with deleterious consequences for communities and countries.

Some features of the internet, like end-to-end encryption and virtual private network (VPN) have made it easier than ever for terrorist organizations to find recruits and manage outreach and organization. For example, migration of pro-ISIS propaganda from likes of Facebook and Twitter to Telegram was in a large part due to encryption facility offered to all its users. Technology also allows these organizations to transcend the tyranny of geography. An organization in one country can raise funds, recruit and radicalize individuals in another part of the world with ease.

Some features of the internet, like end-to-end encryption and virtual private network (VPN) have made it easier than ever for terrorist organizations to find recruits and manage outreach and organization.

Every communication opportunity online is being exploited by these malevolent actors. From the mainstream platforms such as Facebook and Telegram to chat rooms, betting sites, porn websites and online gaming hubs. These virtual venues are fertile breeding grounds for accidental and purposeful recruits and for propagating violent narratives. The importance of ‘digital terror squads’ was emphatically asserted when, in 2016, ISIS granted its ‘media mujahids’ the same rank as those fighting for the group on the ground. This gave the online radicals pride of place that was traditionally reserved for the fighters delivering carnage on the ground. This is only one of the instances that signify just how integral, sophisticated and important cyber operations are for terrorist organizations today.

Terrorist organizations are also leapfrogging traditional hawala networks to embrace Fin-Tech as a means to finance their operations. Services like e-wallets, digital currencies, crypto-currencies and even crowd funding platforms are being leveraged to raise and launder money and finance terrorist operations. This has rendered most current practices of clamping down on terror-finance obsolete, and today more terror organizations have access to more money than ever before.

Terrorist organizations are also leapfrogging traditional hawala networks to embrace Fin-Tech as a means to finance their operations.

Amidst this worrying convergence of terrorism and technology, states have struggled to respond without threatening the infrastructure of cyberspace or the freedoms and opportunities it affords. Meanwhile, the tech platforms are having troubles of their own. The word ‘social’ in social media is under scanner, with platforms facing multiple headwinds relating to their policies on responding to terrorism, fake news and political interference among others. These platforms host billions of users even as they struggle to differentiate between their ‘social’ obligations to the digital commons and their commitments to markets and investors.

As states, platforms and grassroots organizations combat the threat of tech-enabled terrorism, it is important for them to identify certain guiding principles.

First, it is crucial that they do not unintentionally limit access to technology itself. For many states, the knee-jerk response to some of these challenges is banning access or shutting down tech-based routine operations altogether—as we recently saw in Sri Lanka. Instead, states must co-opt technology and tech-actors, which allows for better surveillance of and enforcement against terrorist activities. Legislations and notifications will have limited influence in this new battle theatre. More technology, better technology and skillful deployment of technology against malign actors is the most potent option for all to embrace and one which most governments have failed to invest in.

States must co-opt technology and tech-actors, which allows for better surveillance of and enforcement against terrorist activities.

Second, the digital commons must witness the creation of new mechanisms and institutions for international cooperation on this vital issue. The challenges of terrorism are cross border — making debates held hostage by ‘regional’ or ‘international’, ‘Western’ or ‘Eastern’ silos irrelevant. States and tech companies need to find new venues and forums to cooperate on these issues in an institutionalized manner, formally or informally.  The traditional distrust between governments and private actors is creating a cleavage that allows terror to flourish and succeed.

The digital commons must witness the creation of new mechanisms and institutions for international cooperation on this vital issue.

Third, technology companies must be more forthcoming about disclosures relating to terrorist activities on their platforms. The obsession with the performance of their shares on the bourses is perversely impacting the global effort to respond to terror. They must create internal mechanisms to share information with law enforcement on a real time basis. They must also publish regular public reports detailing the nature of terrorist activities they have identified, and steps taken to counter them. The reluctance of corporations to be transparent about the mishaps on their platforms and networks is a serious problem.

Technology companies must be more forthcoming about disclosures relating to terrorist activities on their platforms.

Fourth, states, for their part, must remember that tech is only a tool. It is not a substitute for real world and virtual policing. Often states attempt to undermine tech—for example through weaker encryption norms due to their naïve assessment that this would assist in their dispensation of duty. This only undermines utility and safety of technology for millions of benign users; while terrorist organizations will simply migrate to alternative platforms as witnessed in the recent past.

States…must remember that tech is only a tool. It is not a substitute for real world and virtual policing.

Fifth, localized capacity building both by state and tech firms is the need of the hour. While national intelligence organizations are certainly relevant, the first line of defense against tech-enabled terrorism will be local law enforcement. Unless these units are equipped with skills and technology, the terrorist will always remain a step ahead in an upcoming era of Do-It-Yourself (DIY) terrorism.

Localized capacity building both by state and tech firms is the need of the hour.

Finally, simultaneous investments in capacity for strategic communications by states and technology companies is a pivotal step. Unless good actors can combat the narrative appeal of radicalism and terror, most responses with be feeble and patchy. Either the states provide purpose and meaning to individuals, or radical groups will. The old methods of counter-terror will need to be dramatically upgraded and redesigned. The terrorists have developed a lethal cocktail of clicks and Kalashnikovs, even as citizens, states and other organizations, lag behind in recognizing and responding to this heady mix.

Simultaneous investments in capacity for strategic communications by states and technology companies is a pivotal step.

Any good policy response to tech-enabled terrorism must acknowledge that combating it requires an “all of society” approach. This first line of defense is always communities, no matter how the technology may change. Platforms for their part must work with them alongside states to increase awareness about this real and present danger and must transparently share their propositions that can help to balance the trifecta of growth, rights and security.

big tech, Cyber and Internet Governance, media and internet

Collapsing frontiers: Between the real and the virtual

CyFy Africa 2019, CyFy Africa, Africa, Samir Saran, innovation, security, society, Morrocco

We are delighted to announce the second edition of CyFy Africa: The Conference on Technology, Innovation and Society. In 2013, we felt that emerging economies needed to have a voice and a platform to discuss the key issues agitating cyberspace. This gave birth to CyFy India. Eight editions and two continents later, we are very excited by the dynamism of this community and the conversations that have made CyFy a premier forum for all things digital.

Indeed, it was the overwhelmingly positive response to the first edition of CyFy Africa in 2018 that gave us the energy and enthusiasm to make this conference an annual affair. We are happy that we have more speakers, institutions and partners this year than we did in the previous year–and they have all contributed to the strength and diversity of our agenda.

It is not a stretch to say that cyberspace and emerging technologies are the most important drivers of change today. However, they are operating in a vacuum—international institutions have failed to provide governance propositions for cyberspace. Domestic regimes have not fared better. Around the world, there are some very polarising debates about data protection frameworks, human rights regimes and security policies. CyFy India began as an endeavour to find a consensus on these questions. Bringing this platform to Africa allows us to continue engaging in these debates with a wider community of stakeholders.

It is, however, a misnomer to think of CyFy as a technology conference alone—even though it may say so on the banner. Today, conversations on technology are as much discussions on human and social behaviour, about the management of organisations and states and even the governance of the international system as a whole. A discussion about technology encompasses conflict and compassion, trade and diplomacy, and war and peace. Today, the feedback loops between the real and the virtual are palpable and our agenda for CyFy Africa captures this phenomenon.

And there is a good reason for this: CyFy also represents a search for a new social contract. All new technologies disrupt existing relationships between citizen, community, business and state. Responses driven by fear and anxiety—which we see a lot of—will invariably lead to suboptimal outcomes. We remain—perhaps naively—a community of optimists. Our goal is to use technology to improve livelihoods, spur new innovation and to create resilient, free and secure societies.

Of course, creating such societies requires partnership and dialogue—which is hard to come by in a generation that focuses on the “I”. Our objective with CyFy Africa is to reach out; to create new possibilities for the transfer off ideas, knowledge and solutions. We seek to create omnidirectional flows that transcend 20th century divides of North, South, East and West. We want to see technology valleys emerge from new communities and societies that are capable of providing innovations and solutions to all.

Here in Africa, and back in India, we see a burning desire to do this—to not only leapfrog constraints and obstacles, but to change lives around the world. CyFy seeks to give voice to this optimism for technology. Lazy incumbencies must give way to new actors, voices and propositions. In an age of disruption, we have tried to bring together the disrupters; the innovators and entrepreneurs that are shaping a new world all together.

Now that we have everyone gathered here in the beautiful city of Tangier, Morocco, we hope that the conversations you all take part in over next three days will fulfil these objectives. We would like to see new partnerships and engagements between individuals and institutions who may never have otherwise met. Above all, we hope that CyFy Africa becomes a platform for consensus building, located as it is at the intersection of continents and cultures.