China, Cyber Security, Politics / Globalisation, Writing

Made in China: A Digital Agenda for the Quad

In the Indo-Pacific and beyond, China’s growth in capabilities and political authoritarianism are now threatening to alter how we engage with technology and digital domains. China believes it has the right to access other nations’ information and networks without offering up access to its own. This is not a simple techno-mercantilism. There is a single purpose to China’s deepening investments in existing and future technologies: furthering the agenda of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

For Beijing, technology is about both national security and ideology. Under Xi Jinping, it will use the information age to rewrite every assumption of the postwar period. Countries outside China must join together to seek open, safe and inclusive technology and digital platforms and products.

There are five main ways in which we can shape national, regional and global engagement with our digital world. These must also drive the purpose and direction of the Quad countries (the United States, Australia, Japan and India) as they strive to create a technology and digital partnership in the Indo-Pacific.

‘China tech’ was for the CCP initially about managing the social contract within China. Now, the CCP is weaponising and gaming other nations’ democracies, public spheres and open systems. It is creating a digital insurgency that allows it to delegitimise its opponents on their own political turf. This goes beyond episodic interference in elections. The CCP uses American forums such as Twitter and Facebook to critique the domestic and foreign policy of nations such as India. Wolf warriors seek to shape the information space internationally while China and the CCP remain protected behind the Great Firewall. The unimpeded global access China is allowed under some perverse notion of free speech must be questioned; internet propaganda endorsed by authoritarian regimes cannot and should not go unchecked. As a first step, the world will have to embrace a political approach to repel the digital encroachments we are witnessing. The European Union offers a model – just as its General Data Protection Regulation sought to rein in the US technology giants, we need laws that limit China’s access to the public spheres of open societies, thereby curtailing its global influence.

Today, all digital (silk) roads lead to Beijing. Many developing countries rely on China for their technology sectors. From control over rare earths and key minerals to monopoly over manufacturing, China commands the digital spigot. The Quad countries and others in the Indo-Pacific must seek and encourage diversification. Affordable, accessible products and innovations must emerge in the digital space. From resilient supply chains to diversity of ownership, a whole new approach is needed to prevent the perverse influence of any single actor. This is the second way to shape global patterns of digital engagement.

The Chinese under Xi have embraced the dangerous essence of the Chinese phrase ‘borrowing a boat to go out to the sea’. The CPC has essentially borrowed all our boats to further their agenda.

Universities in the developed world, their mediatheir public institutions and even their technology companies are serving and responding to missives from the Middle Kingdom. Many journalists have exposed the Western media’s promiscuous entanglements with a Beijing that artfully co-opts them into its propaganda effort. In the digital age, this cannot be ignored. Countries will soon be faced with a digital fait accompli – signing on to Pax Sinica. As a third way to enhance engagement, it is time to protect liberal institutions from their own excesses.

China has attempted to internationalise its currency with the launch of its own digital currency. After banning financial institutions and payment companies from providing crypto-related services in May, China launched a crackdown on computer-powered crypto mining in June, and a blanket ban on all crypto transactions and mining in September, clearing the way for its digital renminbi (digital RMB). With the development of its own central bank digital currency, the Chinese government will now have the power to track spending in real time. It will have access to the entire digital footprint of a citizen or a company. This will provide Beijing with an unprecedented vault of data, which it can use to exercise control over technology companies and individuals.

The rise of China’s digital RMB has the potential to challenge the status of the American greenback. For decades, the US dollar has been the world’s dominant reserve currency. Yet countries such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela have already begun using the Chinese yuan for trade-related activities or replacing the dollar with the yuan as reference currency. China can shape all three attributes of the ‘ideal’ currency, also referred to as the ‘Impossible Trinity’: free capital flow, a fixed exchange rate and independent monetary policy. It is a matter of time before it uses currency as part of its wider geopolitical plans. And with its past experiments with many countries on ‘trade in local currency’, it will have the capacity to create disruptions in the global monetary system. This can only be countered with two measures: one, depoliticising the existing dollar-led currency arrangements (the tendency to weaponise the SWIFT system – a giant messaging network used by banks and other financial institutions to transmit secure information – and to employ ad-hoc economic sanctions) and two, investing in the economic future of the emerging economies that currently depend on China.

Lastly, China is seeking technological domination not only terrestrially but also in outer space. China has invested considerably in space technology and engages in counterspace activities. These include suspected interference in satellite operations, both through cyberattacks and ground-based lasers. There are growing fears that Chinese technologies developed for ostensibly peaceful uses, such as remote satellite repair and cleaning up debris, could be employed for nefarious ends. The inadequate space governance mechanisms is an opportunity for the Quad to develop situational awareness in the space realm to track and counter such activities, and to develop a new set of norms for space governance.

The Quad’s agenda is prescribed by China’s actions. It will have to be a political actor and have the capacity to challenge China in the information sphere and the technology domain. It will need to be a normative power and develop ideas and ideals that are attractive to all.

From codes and norms for financial technologies to the code of conduct for nations and corporations in cyberspace and outer space, the Quad has the responsibility and opportunity to write the rules for our common digital future.

The Quad will also have to be an economic actor and build strategic capacities and assets in the region and beyond. It will have to secure minerals, diversify supply chains and create alternatives that ensure the digital lifelines are not disrupted.

Most importantly, the Quad will need to be an attractive partner for others to work with. This is its best means to counter China’s dangerous influence.


This commentary originally appeared in The Sydney Dialogue.

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Research, Writing

Big Tech and the State: The necessity of regulating tech giants

The scramble for gold on the Internet has transferred control of vast swathes of cyberspace to a very small and select group: Big Tech. This has made ‘significant social media intermediaries’ highly profitable ad businesses that have grown amid non-existent privacy and weak intermediary liability laws. They make the market, grow the market, and shape market rules. No ad business, or any business in history—not even Big Oil or Big Tobacco—has held so much power over consumers and the economy. This perverse power is, perhaps, the single biggest challenge that nations and peoples will have to grapple with. Accountable Tech must be India’s leitmotif in 2023 as it presides over the G-20, and a robust digital republic its sovereign mission as its turns 75 next year. This will need sensible politics, sophisticated policies, and a return to first principles.

Concentration of wealth is a competition issue and an economic policy question. Left unregulated, it brings about inequality in income and opportunity. But concentration of power when it comes to discourse—what is promoted, shared or suppressed—should be more worrying. Safe-harbour provisions in the United States along with self-regulation principles have allowed Big Tech to cherry pick what is to be acted on and what is to be ignored, effectively making it the arbiter of permissible speech. For example, anti-vaccine Twitter users have thrived during the pandemic, while, sometimes, less dangerous actors have had their posts labelled. In January, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, denounced the de-platforming of then US President Donald Trump by Twitter. “The right to freedom of opinion is of fundamental importance,” Merkel’s Chief Spokesperson, Steffen Seibert said, “Given that, the Chancellor considers it problematic that the President’s accounts have been permanently suspended.”

The issue here is not whether Merkel agreed or disagreed with Trump’s tweets. The question is—who censors him, how, and with what process and level of transparency? For the Chancellor and for many, Twitter cannot choose for itself when it seeks to be a provider of public goods, and when it is a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections. When governments around the world describe digital connectivity as a ‘utility’, information lines cannot be disrupted by religious, cultural or ideological filters. Like water, electricity and roads, significant social media will have to serve all, even those its management and owners disapprove of.

[Platforms] cannot choose for [themselves] when they seek to be a provider of public goods, and when they are a private messenger eligible for intermediary protections.

The instances when utilities (say electricity and water) are denied or disconnected are specific, rare and regulated. Even in the information age, only the state and its three pillars have this right. Global Big Tech is not part of this constitutional arrangement. There are checks and balances in place, with legal recourse available for all within the state and for external actors as well. Any alternative to this constitutional setup would be akin to legitimising foreign influence operations in domestic affairs. In an extreme, for a country that is almost perpetually in election mode, it would be tantamount to election interference. This may seem like hyperbole, but it is closer to the truth than we suspect. For instance, if an electoral candidate makes an incendiary speech on a physical stage, the Election Commission, law enforcement agencies and the judiciary act against him—not the private company that has set up the stage or the power utility that has provided an electricity connection to the mike. Is the online equivalent being honoured by Big Tech?

Regulation of Big Tech across democratic setups

Australia gets this. In February, it passed the News Media Bargaining Code. The code encourages intermediary tech firms to negotiate deals with media outlets, effectively mandating that Facebook and Google pay news firms for content. The law was passed after a protracted battle between the Australian government and social media firms. It escalated when Facebook removed content of certain Australian news agencies, several official government handles, emergency services, and civil society organisations from its platform. Prime Minister Scott Morrison held firm: “These actions will only confirm the concerns … about the behaviour of Big Tech companies who think they are bigger than governments and that the rules should not apply to them.”

Canada, too, is making moves to curtail the wealth and discourse monopoly currently enjoyed by Big Tech. Just this week, Canadian lawmakers passed Bill C-10, which seeks to regulate the kind of content media streaming services prioritise on their platforms. The Bill, which is yet to be passed by the Senate, aims to make digital streaming platforms at par with traditional broadcasting services; the latter are obligated to increase the visibility and “discoverability” of Canadian content, and to set aside part of their profits to support a fund that promotes original Canadian productions.

Across the pond from the Americas, the European Union is also actively working towards mitigating the risks posed by the monopoly of Big Tech. Margrethe Vestager, Vice President of the European Commission for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age, has stated that tech giants, “have the power to guide our political debates, and to protect—or undermine—our democracy.” In December 2020, Vestager and her office tabled the Digital Services Act (DSA), which seeks a systemic assessment of the varied social, economic and constitutional risks posed by the services provided by Big Tech.

The most decisive move yet has come from Poland, which has proposed a law to ‘limit’ the censorship tendencies of the tech giants. Soon after the deplatforming of Donald Trump by Twitter, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki wrote on Facebook: “Algorithms or the owners of corporate giants should not decide which views are right and which are not. There can be no consent to censorship.” The new proposed law provides for a special mechanism for those whose content or profiles have been blocked/deleted by social media platforms, where they can complain directly to the platform, which is obligated to respond within 24 hours. After a review by a specially constituted “Freedom of Speech Council”, deleted content can be restored by order. If platforms do not comply, they can face a heavy fine of up to 50 million zloty (US $ 13.4 million).

Regulatory Frameworks in India

India, too, must take some tough calls. The vision of Digital India has advanced—from only four unicorn companies in 2014, India had 12 in just 2020 alone. Regulation must keep pace with this economic and social reality. It is absolutely critical that the Privacy and Data Protection (PDP) Bill, currently being examined by a Parliamentary Joint Committee be brought forth and enacted as law. Without the umbrella framework of the PDP bill, India’s regulation of Big Tech will be ad hoc, and may be misconstrued as a political instrument.

The vision of Digital India has advanced—from only four unicorn companies in 2014, India had 12 in just 2020 alone. Regulation must keep pace with this economic and social reality.

With respect to regulating intermediaries, the Indian government initiated a public consultation process in December 2018 and invited submissions from the public to the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. A spectrum of civic, industry and academic actors participated. The rules were notified in February 2021, specifying clear compliance requirements within three months. Yet, the reaction of Big Tech platforms has been to delay, stall and obfuscate compliance.

It is high time that the actions of these companies were subject to systematic and rigorous Parliamentary oversight; but for that to happen, legislation is needed. Indian law and policy are rooted in our Constitutional principles. Indian policies on digital governance are no different, but they now need the imprimatur of Parliament to truly be effective. And should there be questions and grievances regarding the scope and constitutionality of the law, the courts of India will be the ultimate judge.

The objective of regulatory frameworks is to safeguard public interest, even (or perhaps especially) if it involves eroding the bottomlines of powerful vested interests. To once again quote the EU Commission’s Magrethe Vestager (in an intervention at a technology policy panel at the Raisina Dialogue earlier this year), regulating Big Tech, “Is a job, not a popularity contest”.

Perhaps, the real limitation is one of our imagination. In our minds, Silicon Valley is forever a happy, sunshine place, led by geeky, long-haired wunderkinds in t-shirts and flip-flops. The reality is Big Tech’s instincts today are driven by a single-minded sense of territoriality and collective impatience for different governance systems. For them, their ‘code is law’ and it is universal. That is at the crux of it.

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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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