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

[2] See

[3] See

[4] See

[5] See

[6] See

[7] See

[8] See

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 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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Cyber and Technology, Cyber Security, Multilareism, tech and media

Amid changing post-pandemic realities, India needs to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust

We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.

 Gated Globalisation, GDPR, Integrity, Partners, Pandemic, Big Tech, Regulations

The COVID-19 vaccines are coming. And along with this sanjivani comes a new age of geopolitics. The vaccines are varied, with different pricing points and affordability. Nations have secured their vaccine supplies from countries and companies they trust, often by forging new alliances. The scepticism over the vaccines from China and Russia shows that trust is the operating word in the post-pandemic era — and it is not limited to the choice of vaccines.

As we enter the third decade of the 21st century, a multipolar world awaits us. The US and China — rivals for the top slot till the pandemic hit the world — will now have to contend with traditional and rising powers like the UK, France, India and Brazil. Each country will engage with others selectively, not in every arena. We will see the rise of a New World Order driven by national interest, reliability of partners, and of course, economic factors. India has to use a “Gated Globalisation” framework to negotiate this change.

The security landscape will continue to drive partnerships, but these will no longer be omnibus alliances. India is locked in a confrontation with China in the Himalayas. The US and its traditional allies are ramping up their presence in the Western Pacific. A new Great Game is underway in the Indo-Pacific where the Quad is emerging. The Middle East is in a deep churn as Israel and Arabs discover Abrahamic commonalities. Europe is caught in a struggle to retain its values amid the diversity it has acquired over the years.

The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests. Gated Globalisation has no place for parlour games like “non-alignment”; it will test the tensile strength of “strategic autonomy”. The need for a new coalition was felt after Doklam and has become a necessity post-Ladakh: India needs friends in deed.

The Gated Globalisation framework requires that India should protect its interests in these unsettled times. Strong fences are necessary, but so is the creation of new partnerships (like the Quad) based on trust and common interests

Beyond security, like everybody else, India has to make partnership choices on trade, capital flows and the movement of labour. The WTO’s multilateral trading arrangements have frayed beyond repair. Whether it is RCEP in the Indo-Pacific, the new version of NAFTA called USMCA, or the reconfigured EU, countries will have to decide whether they belong inside these gated trading arrangements. India has chosen to stay out of RCEP and the UK has left the EU.

By imposing restrictions on trade with China, India faces restrictions on capital flows. But this does not preclude enhanced capital flows from new partners. To prevent inflow of illicit funds, India has barred capital from poorly-regulated jurisdictions. India’s capital account for investment is largely open while its current account is carefully managed. Similarly, while restricting debt flows, India is open for equity flows from friendly countries. Other nations have similar policies. By managing capital flows in this manner, countries have enabled tighter financial relationships within their gated communities while shutting out those who are inimical to their interests.

India’s global diaspora is now over 30 million and sends more through remittances ($80 billion per year) than foreign capital inflows. The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere. Moreover, the Indian diaspora is now increasingly impacting policy in countries like the US, UK and Australia where it has contributed politicians and technocrats, innovators and influencers, billionaires and cricket captains.

The pandemic-enforced work-from-home may see the creation of new pools of skilled workers, living in virtual gated communities, further enhancing income from jobs physically located elsewhere

Finally, technology flows and standards will also define gated communities. The internet is already split between China and everyone else. The Great Firewall of China has shut out many of the big tech players like GoogleFacebook and Netflix. Instead, China has its Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. With the advent of 5G technology, this split will get deeper and wider over issues of trust and integrity.

The EU-crafted General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is an excellent example of Gated Globalisation. The EU has set the terms of engagement; those who do not comply will be kept out. The Indian law on data protection that is currently being discussed follows a similar sovereign route. However, it remains to be seen whether these norms can checkmate China’s massive digital surveillance apparatus.

There are other emerging arenas that will likely become the focus of big power competition. China has moved in all possible directions to develop its global strategies. It has linked its national security interests with its Belt-and-Road Initiative and its debt programmes. It is offering a package deal of 5G technology with new telecom networks. China has learnt well from the US.

Amid these rapidly changing post-pandemic realities, India has to be swift in identifying partners whom it can trust and who will help protect and further its national interests. Ambiguity, lethargy and posturing will not do.

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.

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.

China, Commentaries, foreign policy, India, Strategic Studies, tech and media

Resisting Chinese encroachment

India must not contribute to the digital and economic rise of the same power that harms it

 Chinese encroachment, China Tech, apps, Hegemony, Xi Jinping, Huawei, Samir Saran

On June 29, the minister for electronics and information technology and law and justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad, tweeted that “For safety, security, defence, sovereignty & integrity of India and to protect data & privacy of people of India the government has banned 59 mobile apps.” After the usual partisan bluster surrounding this move subsides, India must operationalise and strengthen this momentous decision. India, its people, and its territory that are now increasingly digital, must be protected from China’s encroachment and influence.

This long-term response has to be shaped by three ideas. First, India must not contribute to the success, proliferation and performance of digital weapons that will be ranged against it. China’s tech must be recognised as one. Second, it must wean itself away from an iniquitous trade relationship that makes it dependent on a country that seeks to harm it. And, third, India needs to step out of the shadow that stunts its own economic growth, diminishes its political clout and limits its digital ambitions.

The presence of China’s hardware and platforms in India’s digital ecosystem constitutes a long-term security threat. Arriving at this conclusion requires no strenuous leap of logic. A level-headed assessment of China’s stated intentions and observable actions is enough. China has manipulated democratic means to transmit its propaganda and advertised its way to ensure suitable reportage and headlines. It has leveraged WeChat to interfere in Canadian politics, and to intercept content beyond its jurisdiction, and adopted western social media platforms to target dissidents abroad, exacerbate racial tensions in the United States (US), interfere in Taiwan’s political processes and spread disinformation about the coronavirus. China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.

China has entrenched the influence of its tech platforms in key global institutions such as the United Nations in an attempt to redraw the rules of information flows and the ethical applications of emerging technologies like facial recognition systems.

These are fundamental to China’s great power ambitions — they assist Beijing to expand its “discourse power”, develop indigenous technologies, create lock-ins through standards and infrastructure, weaponise its economic and technological interdependence, and emerge as a technology superpower. Relations with India are inconsequential to Beijing’s imagination of the world. India has to look out for itself. This new mindset to review engagement with China tech is a vital first step to protect itself.

China will continue to gather information on Indians. More worrisome is the insidious ability of the Communist Party of China (CPC) to interfere in or influence India’s political and social spheres. During the Doklam stand-off, the security establishment discovered that the Chinese-owned UC Browser was filtering certain news on Android handsets in India to shape perceptions and outcomes — classic information warfare in the digital age. Recently, we have seen content critical of China being taken down on one of the banned apps and moderation of other incidents and images as well.

This is not unique to Chinese platforms. But far-reaching national security legislations, and subservience to a one man-led party that is inimical to India, make their continuance untenable. Indian democracy, howsoever flawed, must steer clear of the digital “tea rooms” owned by the CPC.

Will this Indian decision cause economic harm to Chinese platforms? In terms of revenues, clearly it will not. In terms of value, tremendously so. Platforms rely on network effects to scale — every additional user drives up valuations and the aggregate data that they produce feeds into other commercial and research and development activities and product development. Indian eyeballs and data should not fuel Chinese malfeasance directed against them.

Similarly, India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”. Countries such as Singapore, the US, Australia and others have already signalled different degrees of intent to manage the Dragon. New Delhi’s decision should strengthen this trend and encourage others. Political trust is increasingly going to shape the direction of technology flows. India must work with its allies and partners through new initiatives such as the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to compete with and contain China.

India must bar China’s telecommunications infrastructure from its 5G networks. It is time to say “No way Huawei”

India’s actions will invite consequences. China will respond using other aspects of the economic relationship. India’s dependence on electronics, pharmaceuticals and other industrial inputs are well-documented and easy pickings. China’s response could manifest itself along the Line of Actual Control or through cyber intrusions. China’s ability to impose costs must serve to motivate India.

Bilateral trade is healthy when there is a balance. With China, it is a doubled-barrelled shotgun trained between India’s eyes. It is important that we fix this now as a three trillion dollar economy. Otherwise, all our future growth will only serve to strengthen the entity which seeks to weaken us.

India’s decision has come at a time when economic activity is already under siege from the Wuhan virus and when major economies are also questioning their dependence on China. A reconfiguration of value chains is inevitable. Public opinion favours this and the short-term pain will be acceptable to many. As India restarts its pandemic-stalled economy, let us create value chains that are not of dubious origin.

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.