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 Technology, India, international affairs, media and internet, tech and media

Just deserts? Western reportage of the second wave in India exposes deep schisms in relations with the East

Co-authored with Mr. Jaibal Naduvath

This article is a continuation of a previous article written by the authors, Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

In Lord Byron’s poemChilde Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), the protagonist Harold, contemplating the grandness of the Colosseum, imagines the condemned gladiator, dignified yet forlorn, butchered for the entertainment of a boisterous, blood lusty Roman crowd out on a holiday.

Public spectacles of suffering are integral to the discourse of power. The perverse imagery and messaging surrounding the suffering seeks to intimidate and suppress the subaltern’s agency to perpetuate ethnic dominance and social control. It pivots around an elevated moral sense of the ‘self’. In his seminal work, When Bad Things Happen to Other People, John Portmann argues that it is not unusual to derive gratification over the suffering of the ‘other’, particularly when the native feels that the suffering or humiliation of the ‘other’ is deserved. The suffering then becomes fair recompense for transgressions real and imagined, and the accompanying sense of justice and closure brings forth feelings of gratification.

India is reeling in the aftermath of the second wave of COVID-19. As death reaps rich dividends cutting across class and covenant, the country is engaged in a determined fightback. The developments have made global headlines, and, in equal measure, triggered global concern. Apocalyptic images of mass pyres and victims in their death throes, replete with tales of ineptitudeprofiteering and callous attitudes, have made front page news and have become television primetime in much of the trans-Atlantic press, conforming to reductive stereotypes that have informed three centuries of relations with the Orient. The ‘self-inflicted’ suffering is then ‘fair recompense’.

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Content Modernisation, Cyber and Technology, Free Speech, Freedom and Expression, India, media and internet, tech and media

Social media platforms can’t be a law unto themselves

Social Media Platforms, Communities, safety, societies, debates, politics, US Election, monitoring, safety, sovereign, boards, superfluous

The US elections are witnessing heated, contested, loud and aggressive debates, with media (new and old) donning visibly partisan robes. One such media report has sought to pull India and Indians into the middle of the Trump Vs Biden campaign battle.

First, there is a simple fact that often eludes social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook as well as the easily outraged proponents of the newly-minted ‘cancel culture’. Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate.

Social media platforms may have their own terms and rules of engagement and content monitoring; it is their prerogative. But those terms and rules cannot—and, more importantly, must not—be allowed to supersede the law as framed by sovereign states, especially democracies, where these platforms operate

For example, the law as it exists in India, based on its constitutional and penal provisions, overrides terms and rules framed by social media companies based anywhere in the world, operating within its territory. After all, if these companies ensure compliance with Indian law in order to conduct business, equal compliance would be in order for content monitoring and management. There cannot be two separate arrangements.

It is necessary to underscore this point to unclutter the debate triggered by an article in the Wall Street Journal, which imputed that Facebook has shown extraordinary preference for the BJP on account of the political bias of some of its employees. Facts do not bear out the newspaper’s contention, which is of a piece with what is termed as ‘cancel culture’, where only those views that are endorsed by a ‘select few’ may be allowed a public platform. The ensuing shouting match needs to be contested with a tempered view on the more substantial issue of a platform’s self-assumed supreme right and absolute authority to decide what can and cannot be allowed to be said.

It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices—instigated the outrage against Facebook’s alleged political bias in India. It is a proxy that prepares the ground for what lies ahead.

It is quite obvious that the upcoming US presidential election and the attempt to coerce platforms into becoming an extension of the campaign for or against the incumbent Administration—which is no secret within and outside social media corporate offices

But since it involves India, and Indian users of Facebook and all other platforms, let us locate this debate within the Indian context and focus on three crucial questions surrounding platform accountability and compliance.

First, what is the Indian consensus on what constitutes freedom of expression online? It certainly must not be what Facebook, Twitter, et al deem fit. The Constitution of India guarantees its citizens certain fundamental rights that cannot be encroached upon except under special circumstances and that too only by the state, not an external agency. Article 19 (2) qualifies freedom of speech and expression with “reasonable restrictions … in the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, public order, decency or morality or in relation to contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.” More often than not, these restrictions are followed in the breach, unless there is a specific complaint.

India’s judiciary has intervened to either uphold or strike down these restrictions depending on their application. In other words, there are no specific, watertight definitions guiding Article 19 (2). By and large, all speech, unless it violates India’s penal code, is held to be free. Perceptions and legal positions have changed over time. For instance, DH Lawrence, once held to be ‘obscene’ by the courts, is now a part of university curricula. Barring the early years of the Republic, the restriction on speech that may harm relations with ‘friendly countries’ has never been imposed. The Supreme Court’s Hindutva judgement has elasticised political speech. ‘Hate speech’ is broadly defined as speech that promotes enmity between communities while ‘violent speech’ is understood to be speech that calls for or poses an imminent threat of violence. There are separate laws to deal with both and judgements to guide their application.

Now, for some recent examples of free speech, social media responses and the consequences. Last week, P Naveen, a relative of Congress MLA Akhanda Srinivasa Murthy in Karnataka, posted content—in response to another post—which was deemed to be “anti-Islam” by a mob that ran riot, burning down the legislator’s house and ransacking two police stations. The police opened fire; four people lost their lives. It could be argued that had Facebook been alert and ‘unbiased’ in its content monitoring, then it would have pulled down the provocative post that prompted the response by Naveen, thus, nipping all mischief in the bud. But since the first post remained untouched, could that be imputed to Facebook’s bias towards a specific community and against another? At which point does accountability come in?

Also last week, Twitter locked the account of JNU professor and well-known public figure Anand Ranganathan for posting a verse from the Quran that called for “punishment” of those who “abuse Allah and his messenger” in the context of the Bengaluru riots. Twitter has said that Anand Ranganathan’s account has been locked because his tweet violated the platform’s rules that explicitly state, “You may not promote violence against, threaten, or harass other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease.” How can something that can be freely stated, either in writing or verbally—in Indian media because there is no legal bar on it—be out of bounds on Twitter? Do Twitter rules supersede Indian laws?

Which brings us to the second question: What should be the operating law for social media platforms? Is it the law of India or is it the law of the country where the parent company is based? Or, more ominously, is it the ‘law’ as framed by the company, regardless of the law(s) of either the parent or the host country. With respect to the brouhaha over Facebook and its alleged bias, were company officials pushing back against Indian law or were they pushing back against a presumptive ‘law’ to (selectively) govern speech globally? It is this grey area in which social media platforms operate that creates fertile ground for mischief and indeed for political capture and gaming. It is imperative that there be no ambiguity in this regard, especially because it concerns the rights of citizens.

The third big question that arises is: What recourse do we have when someone – an individual, an institution, or the state – seems to be erring on the side of hate speech? Will the errant entity or individual be held to account by law or by dissent? As of now, it is unclear as to exactly which authority we are appealing. Without a framework to approach and remedy cases like these, Indian social media users will remain subject to the whims and fancies of content platforms, who will arbitrarily decide for themselves what is the ‘common good’, often with scant regard for the law of the land. For instance, if Twitter were to ban the account of an Opposition leader, it would prompt cries of censorship. On the other hand, if a ruling party leader were to be banned, should it be seen as acting under pressure?

It is for the state, a sovereign entity, to respond (in keeping with its extant laws) if there is a speech violation, intentionally or otherwise. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter cannot be allowed to arrogate to themselves this role and render the sovereign power of the state meaningless. As mentioned earlier, the Constitution allows only for the State to restrict citizens’ rights in extraordinary situations, and even that is open to judicial scrutiny. If we were to allow Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to have the executive power to infringe upon our freedoms, it would create space and scope for them to be used as political tools by those in power or out of power. That would be against all canons of national sovereignty and fly in the face of freedom.

Therefore, social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country. If cause and effect (to a social media post) are limited to a local jurisdiction, content platforms cannot, and must not, get involved, except for providing evidence to aid law enforcement, if called upon by the courts. If the effect of social media content is transnational, then international agreements between the countries concerned may be used for law-enforcement application.

Social media platforms cannot, and must not, interfere in the domestic debates and political processes of a sovereign country

The noise over Facebook’s alleged bias aside, we are talking about the sanctity, integrity and safety of societies, communities and countries. Sovereign states, more so in democracies, are responsible for these areas of public life and are accountable to national institutions as well as citizens. Social media and content platforms, however, are accountable to nobody but their boards. They are far removed from the concerns of the user whose time and patronage they actively solicit.

Corporate governance cannot be restricted to the non-digital world; it must now extend to digital platforms. Platforms should be held both answerable and actionable for their decisions, which cannot be unfettered from the law of the land where they operate. Everything else is superfluous.

big tech, Commentaries, Health care, media and internet, tech and media, USA and Canada

Revisiting Orientalism: Pandemic, politics, and the perceptions industry

The reordering of global power relations with the emergence of the East has begun to alter the West’s imagination, narratives and processes of self-identification. One discernible and strengthening trend arising from this changing political landscape is the increasing deployment of reductive stereotypes in the Western media, reminiscent of the colonial era when the West appropriated to itself the “burden of civilising the savage” East.

This effort to devalue, deplore and defame the East is now a recurrent theme and, perhaps, is an attempt to define oneself as distinct from the “other” in these troubled times. More insidiously, it is also deployed as a method of control and as a projection of a superior agency for achieving definitive economic and political goals. Simply put, the West seeks to tower above all by diminishing the East.

With its increasing economic influence (the pandemic notwithstanding), greater presence in world affairs, and an emerging and louder identity (with passionate supporters and detractors), India’s actions and policies have come under close and often critical scrutiny in powerful sections of the liberal media in the Atlantic system. This, by itself, is both natural and unsurprising.

What is disturbing is the near universal, vicious and negative portrayal of a land that is proud of its democratic politics (just as many other nations are), with a loud, disruptive and often aggressive media, and mobilisations led by communities that have toppled governments and, sometimes, catalysed perverse outcomes. It is a far from perfect, largely low-income country, with its fragilities debated with gusto at home and judged at the hustings repeatedly. What is curious about the naked aggression of the liberal Western media is its visible conflation of the domestic debates of their land with those in foreign lands; their sense of loss of their old place and space and the externalisation of grievance onto the “outsider”; and, their weaponisation of differences in much the same manner as their far Right counterparts.

Many a time, this “reduced” portrayal of India or other lands may be just journalistic or editorial carelessness. When it does happen, it must be called out and now is a good time to engage with this trend. The distasteful grammar, and gloomy imagery that dominates Western coverage on India says less about the country under the scanner and more about the malaise within media organisations as they move from editorial and ownership structures of the past to the digital and decentralised realities of today. The ugly underbelly of a section of the media continues to reveal itself as it engages with India and its efforts in coping with the Covid-19 pandemic.

Over the last two months, organisations such as the BBCthe Atlantic , the Washington Post and the New York Times, among others, have run series of reductive commentaries on the state of India’s preparedness and its capacity to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. If we are being honest, they are being biased and blasé about it.

From alarmist commentaries (one report hypothesised that half of India could be infected!) and ridiculing the capacity and agency of the government, to deriving vicarious delight by focusing on well-known social inequities, their reporting has been “misery porn” with the spotlight being on India’s vulnerabilities and shortcomings in the fight against the pandemic. These are embellished through a cleverly selected presentation of events and facts; compelling images of poverty, denial, and deprivation; and, an overdose of virtue showboating.

The recurring portrayal of marginalised communities and migrants lacking economic, social, and political agency is presented as distinct from the values of esteem, equality and harmony, which form the bedrock of a “civilised” society. This narrative deliberately ignores the universal acceptance of these “ideals” to meet its singular objective — the perpetuation of a needless discourse of discord instead of a more worthwhile debate on the failure of globalisation and the extant economic models, something which is on stark display around the world.

This media narrative on India is perhaps not meant to only highlight inequality within the country because inequality is all prevalent around the world, more dazzlingly so in the West. It appears to be an attempt to distance a country and its mainstream from the civilised “self” which resides in the moral and emancipated world of publishers, editors and reporters. India and its large population are being painted as the proverbial “other” even as New York, the beacon of Western civilisation, is being scorched by the scourge.

Incidentally, and expectedly, many of these reports have been penned by native authors. This old trick affords plausible deniability to the publications against any allegations of White bias or racism, which is still resplendent in each of these reports. Nobel Laureate professor Amartya Sen and renowned pan-Africanist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon have argued how centuries of colonial subjugation and cultural infantalisation have left deep imprints on the self-image of the colonised, with the natives often viewing themselves and their cultures through the coloniser’s prism of prejudice. This phenomenon is one of colonialism’s most dehumanising byproducts and has now achieved viral potency alongside the pandemic.

Literary critic and linguist Namvar Singh, in his essay Decolonising the Indian Mind, alluded to this desperate urge that resides within Indian English-language writers to be accepted and understood by Western audiences as being part of their own identity continuum. The absurdity of the writings are, therefore, astounding. Just how absurd can be guessed from the assertion that a country with a per capita income of $2,000 must have the governance infrastructure and attributes similar to those with multiple times the resources and capacity — the leitmotif of much that is published on India. What is often forgotten in the “one village” discourse perpetuated by this class is that this village never was and never will be. This pandemic is the story of “millions of villages” seeking their own salvation as the “global ethic” promoted by the liberal media was the first victim of, and culprit-in-chief for, the pandemic and its heavy toll.

For a nation the size of a continent with many inherent challenges, India’s response has been bold and feeble at the same time, just as it has been universal and differentiated. While states such as Kerala and some others appear to have contained the crises well, other states with more complex and complicated politics are battling to keep this virus in check. There are shortcomings galore but most importantly, there is resolute intent across society and politics to fight the pandemic. States are adopting different models — unique to their local situation — drawing heavily from aspects as diverse as their specific cultural practices, topography, information systems and technology, along with government intervention.

Arguably, some states in India have outperformed some of the developed nations. A fair and balanced reportage should have presented these myriad experiences in combating the novel coronavirus, rather than just those narratives that build stereotypes and biases. In fact, the odd positive story out of India has the focused objective of establishing chaos and disorder as the norm — the outlier province with West-like predisposition, the snake-charmer and the bazaar magician, the bandar and the bandarlog, and other such notions lurk among words and between lines. This is reminiscent of the debates in 19th-century Britain with its praise of some quaint developments in India and its resolute determination to tame the East.

Celebrated political thinker Edward Said situated this impulse in the colonial domination of the non-West by the West, and the attendant perceptions of superiority that accompanied such domination. He argued that the West was able to manage, and even produce, the non-West by projecting itself as progressive, rational, civil and humanistic as opposed to the non-West. This reductive narrative was a purposeful one, created to morally justify the colonial enterprise and legitimise the civilising mission which was the “White man’s burden”.

This civilising purpose perpetuated through literature, popular culture and politics for over two centuries has not only informed and influenced the trajectory of colonial politics and popular Western imagination, but has also become embedded as the indisputable truth, forever colouring Western understanding of the Orient.

Starting with James Mill’s influential History of British India (1817) to Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), diminished narratives on native agency, Professor Amartya Sen argues, have informed the views of generations of the Western intellectual and political elite, from Alexander Duff to Theodore Roosevelt and beyond. Works such as Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden, whom George Orwell called the “prophet of British Imperialism”, are considered reflective of this seemingly benign ethnocentric trajectory of colonial discourse.

French Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas traces this bias to the West’s philosophical bearing, where identity is sought in the indurate logic of the self, rather than the expression of self in relation to difference. This predisposition manifests in a skewed representation of non-Western experiences. It is the cornerstone of the age-old identity debates that have troubled and defined human interactions. The sense of “Us versus Them”, or our superior agency versus theirs, proliferates the reports around Covid-19. The articles in the New York Times deploy a lack of empathy to create the “identity distance”. The Atlantic deploys lack of agency as a missing virtue, and social inequity defines the coverage of the BBC and the Washington Post in this instance. Unfortunately, the pandemic has a different tale to narrate.

A study of infection patterns in New York, for instance, presents vivid glimpses of elite depredations. The Black and marginalised communities have been significantly more affected than the rest, with one report assessing that Black Americans were thrice as likely to die from the infection than their White compatriots. The virus has indubitably driven a wedge between the economic haves and have-nots in the US, with significantly higher than average infections and deaths even among caregivers, who are people of colour, than their White counterparts. This isn’t very different from the Indian experience where the more impoverished are facing the fury of the pandemic.

Universally, and without exception, catastrophic events such as the raging pandemic tend to disproportionately affect the economically and socially marginalised more. In India, struggling migrants seek a path back to their hamlets. In the US, the rich and powerful escape to the Hamptons. This is an identity discourse of another variety that poses the same question for all humanity on the form and format of our economic agenda and priorities.

Colonial biases and stereotypes form an intractable part of the Western subconscious. However, the representation also needs to be viewed within a grander scheme. Beyond the articulation of the reductive occidental logic, it also offers a convenient moment for some to mobilise the newly dispossessed intelligentsia against the new nationalist urge that is shaping India’s political and economic discourse.

The story of the media reportage on India’s response to Covid-19 is, perhaps, not about the country’s efforts and its successes and failures. It is a narrative of perverse politics where the increasingly under threat elite opinion makers — the post-colonial custodians of virtue — are expressing (through their media) their contempt for those who do not see their path as either divine or preordained. This is political coverage, not one on the pandemic, and it has been scripted with the ink of exclusion.

This commentary originally appeared in Newslaundry.

Cyber and Technology, Health care, India, media and internet, tech and media

Digital Epiphany? COVID19 and our Tech Futures

Processes that were once subject to national jurisdictions – be it political conversations, trade and commerce, or national security considerations – are increasingly migrating to ungoverned digital spaces, creating what I have earlier called a “platform planet”. It is clear that the coronavirus will accelerate this process and more permanently fuse our technological and
social systems while encoding inequities and cleavages therein.

Most pertinent to this is the issue of access to digital technologies. Think of the pressure on governments today to deliver governance and services in the age of social distancing, the clamour from parents whose children cannot access educational opportunities, or demands from historically marginalized groups who may not be able to work remotely. Life, protection, and livelihood will all need to be guaranteed virtually and most capitals around the world will struggle to provide these.

Some positive transformations will be driven by technology companies looking to break new ground and compete for consumers among the millions of social and commercial interactions that will now be permanently online. Videoconferencing platforms, for instance, have emerged as the go-to technology keeping governments and businesses running even as social distancing is being practised. And still more change will be driven by governments adopting digital tools to carry out health surveillance measures or to enforce quarantines. Evolving debates and assumptions on user agency, privacy and data protection may be significantly altered in the year ahead.

Undoubtedly, the most important structural change will be in the form and format of the relationship between technology and society. Over the past two decades, there have been two fundamental notions that have shaped this ever-evolving relationship. The first, roughly corresponding to the first decade of the 21st century, was a near universal belief in the emancipatory potential of emerging technologies and a social willingness to accept new technologically induced disruptions. The second perspective, corresponding to the second decade, was the antithesis of the first – a “tech-lash” or scepticism about the role of emerging technologies in our social lives and a growing degree of suspicion about the intent and actions of “big tech” and “strong states”.

The coronavirus outbreak will demand a synthesis of these, and other, perspectives under extraordinarily compressed timelines. The many decisions that will be made over the coming year will either become entrenched or will reinforce certain pathways in the decade ahead. Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fasttracked and deployed. Meanwhile, consumer technologies that are scaling rapidly, such as videoconferencing and fintech platforms, will face additional scrutiny from consumers and states as they become more utility-like in their deployment.

Technologies that society would have once expected greater regulatory scrutiny around –such as the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in healthcare – will likely be fast-tracked and deployed.

As this process of synthesis unfolds over the coming year, the international community will be confronted with a new set of opportunities as well as risks. Perhaps the first and most visible risk emanates from a largely ungoverned digital public sphere. Indeed, this pandemic has also been accompanied by an “infodemic”, with misinformation and disinformation flooding most social media platforms, which for all practical purposes play the role of both traditional media and discussions rooms of yore that shaped public opinion.

Fake news alone, however, is not the only dimension of this risk. The response to it may be equally dangerous. The COVID-19 outbreak may end up creating stronger censorship regimes in an attempt to curb the spread of disinformation. Equally worrying is the power of technology platforms to mediate these spaces during times of crisis and the dangerous collaboration or confrontation brewing between technology companies and governments. For instance, certain technology platforms took down content by President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil because they deemed it spread disinformation. But should platforms have the ability to censor the content of a head of state? On the other hand, should they partner with governments and dilute freedom of expression through new measures that may outlast this pandemic?

second related risk is the data-sharing  practices that technology companies, health institutions and governments are adopting – with little oversight or accountability – to combat COVID-19. This trend will not only be about the data generated today. Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely create a new battlefield, one that will be defined by the datasets generated by the fusion of our biological and digital worlds. Indeed, one set of technologies that were already being deployed rapidly before the virus outbreak were those related to genomics. The practices around genetic privacy – and the institutions that manage them – in the year ahead may well create new and unexpected risks to our fundamental rights as unique living beings.

third risk likely to challenge our technological futures are efforts to undermine the integrity of the cyber realm. While most nations remain worried about threats to critical infrastructure (the United Nations has already called for a digital ceasefire) the COVID-19 outbreak will also exacerbate “petty” cyber-crimes. These are minor cyber incidences; those that may not pose systemic national security threats but will affect the financial and social lives of individuals dramatically. The sudden uptick in COVID-related phishing scams, telemedicine scams and attacks on medical institutions all point in this direction. Trust in technology will be undermined at a time when the digital is the ether for globalization to survive.

The fourth risk is of individuals being permanently left behind as the process of digitalization continues to accelerate. Inequality has been the defining political zeitgeist of our generation – one that digital technologies have often accentuated. In countries without full or robust access to the internet, citizens are suffering from multidimensional socio-economic challenges as the pandemic snatches away their access to essential public goods.

But the challenge goes beyond this. Just as individuals are beginning to learn that not all work requires formal office spaces, businesses may well realize that not all operations require humans. The rapid adoption of AI and robotics energized amid the pandemic could accelerate a process that governments and policy-makers have been concerned about for years – technology-induced unemployment.

The final risk could end up being a product of how states actually respond to these various challenges amid a rapidly digitizing global society. No two societies are the same – they are defined by different political values, social practices and economic priorities. With COVID-19 forcing more of our social lives, business operations and governance online, the race to infuse the global digital world with a particular set of values and technological standards will only accelerate. Digital “code wars” may well be this century’s ideological confrontation that may partition the world in the end.

Think of the UN, the centrepiece of the liberal international order, partnering with Tencent, the digital champion of a vast surveillance state, to conduct its remote work operations. This has become a cause for concern for many countries. Reports indicate that the UN is already backtracking from its decision under pressure from human rights groups and democratic nations. Indeed, the varied digital societies that are emerging may fuel loud “geotechnological” competition.

That said, policy-makers may also see in the COVID-19 crisis an opportunity to reform political and administrative practices that were earlier hobbled by legacy institutional constraints. The most obvious, perhaps, is the accelerated adoption of what the UN calls “digital public goods”. These are the common digital “railroads”, which act as force multipliers for a range of business and governance operations.

For instance, India’s Digital ID system has helped the country navigate the pandemic by ensuring cash transfers and digital payments for a range of essential goods. The demand for similar architectures has been growing around the world. Singapore had already signed an MoU with the Indian government, even before the virus outbreak, to develop such a system. Similarly, Google has cited India’s digital payments infrastructure to call on the Federal Reserve to enable similar innovations in the US. These trends could see universal strengthening at this time.

This moment offers an opportunity for states to respond to the needs of a growing global informal workforce. The informal labour force and the “gig economy” workforce need new systems of social protection. The absence of this has placed them at great risk and at the frontline of this pandemic. These political reforms may not be ignored much longer. The idea of a universal basic income – a measure that is supported both by the Pope and The Financial Times – could also find favour and catalyse a new dimension for the future of work.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly. Consider for, instance, a rapidly growing community of entrepreneurs sharing opensource 3D printing designs for ventilators. Perhaps civil society organizations and policymakers can use the COVID-19 moment to push for new pipelines that will enable the transfer of technologies and innovations and encourage them to rethink rigid intellectual property regimes, which hindered this earlier.

Perhaps the most significant opportunity will be for states and individuals to realize the potential of a truly global digital society. Responding to COVID-19 has compelled governments and communities to share sporadic information, some best practices and critical technologies rapidly

Over a century ago, when individuals were isolating themselves amidst a far deadlier Spanish Flu, many (primarily Americans) turned to the telephone to stay in touch with friends, family and colleagues. Of course, it was a nascent technology at the time and services promptly broke down because of the rapid rise in demand. But rather than crippling the industry and the technology forever, the Spanish Flu only served to underscore how essential it was to modern society. Over a century later, it is clear that the telephone was instrumental in shaping our global village.

We are at a similar junction today. And decades later, historians may well scrutinize the decisions made in the year ahead when studying how the digital shaped individuals, communities, nations and the world they inherited.

This essay originally appeared in World Economic Forum.

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.