The Valley in Digital India

Prime Minister Modi is certainly right in prioritising Internet access and digital infrastructure but running a race without knowing the finishing line is a losing game.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

Published - October 19, 2014 09:25 pm IST

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Over the course of the last few weeks, the CEOs of Silicon Valley unveiled the latest frontier to be conquered in India. Products and strategies are out. What’s in is humanitarian ventures, empowering Indians and helping Prime Minister Narendra Modi implement his Digital India initiative.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for example, pointed out during his recent visit the similarities between the company’s ‘’ project and Mr. Modi’s vision of boosting digital infrastructure, bringing Internet access to all citizens and providing online government services.

Microsoft Chief Executive Satya Nadella, who made his first trip to India a week before Mr. Zuckerberg arrived, similarly underscored the role of Microsoft and technology in spurring growth. “We are keen to partner with government and industry at large to help make this vision a reality,” the newly-appointed CEO said in a media interview.

Google has also announced that it would want to help the government accelerate its Digital India agenda. Some of the company’s initial plans involve helping millions of women get online and also building the non-English Internet base.

To be sure, there is much to be gained by incorporating Silicon Valley expertise into boosting digital infrastructure and backing that up with online government services. Providing affordable, high-quality broadband will involve overcoming years of terrible government implementation and bureaucratic inefficiency. Refusing help would not only seem arrogant, but could also be downright stupid.

And yet, there are other less obvious subtexts that must be carefully read. The most obvious question is whether technology companies are altruistic enough to work towards international development without it involving a potential pay-off. And even if Digital India and that pay-off could be intertwined, what sort of development would we see?

Consider Facebook’s project, the long-stated goal of which is to help in providing affordable and universal Internet access. One of the ways the initiative achieves is this by cobbling together a package of ‘useful’ applications — which usually includes the Facebook app — and offers them for essentially free. The data charges are subsidised by cutting deals with telecom operators.

Not only does this violate the principles of net neutrality by introducing a preferential pricing structure — therefore, discriminating against companies that are not included in the project — but it also inserts Facebook as a middleman for applications that have nothing to do with the social networking site, such as education or health.

This kind of ‘technological solutionism’ approach towards issues of inequality also helps us ignore the reasons behind that particular inequality. If problems of health and education can be solved with an app, why worry about why the government has failed to provide decent facilities in the first place? Similarly, why think about alternative ways of providing universal broadband access when companies can negotiate complex arrangements that will almost certainly fail to represent the interests of the whole ecosystem? But more than that, what Digital India has failed to articulate, in an age of mass Internet surveillance, is a conceptualisation of India’s data and digital sovereignty. After all, if there was one thing that the Edward Snowden episode showed us, it was that the ‘global Internet’ is actually quite American — from the tapped cables to the compromised Silicon Valley companies.

Approaches to digital sovereignty

There are different approaches towards digital sovereignty: China, for instance, has systematically blocked most of Silicon Valley, and has instead encouraged the creation of its own Internet companies. The success of Alibaba at the New York Stock Exchange, as the Wall Street Journal put it, has only cemented how the Internet power balance is slowly turning towards Asia.

Brazil, on the other hand, is more concerned with how the data of its citizens are handled by companies such as Google and Microsoft. President Dilma Rousseff recently took the first steps in pushing for a law that would require foreign cloud service providers to store Brazilian data on servers hosted in Brazil.

India, on the other hand, is far behind in terms of articulating a domestic vision. In a paper titled ‘An Internet with BRICS Characteristics: Data Sovereignty and the Balkanisation of the Internet’, University of Oxford professors Joss Wright and Dana Polatin-Reuben highlight the practical non-existence of India’s stance.

“It is worth noting that India appears to be most interested in safeguarding the data of its Western investors, rather than asserting sovereignty over its own nationally-generated data. For instance, India and the United Kingdom entered into a cyber-pact in 2012 with the aim of protecting British data stored in Indian data centres... India is more likely to take a Western approach to data sovereignty than a Sino-Russian approach,” the authors write.

Digital India, it appears, has little imagination when it comes to envisioning a digital India. One way of getting our citizens online would have Google sign them up for a Gmail account — why shouldn’t the other way also have India Post provide them with digital cloud and e-mail facilities?

In Europe, postal operators such as Germany’s Deutsche Post and France’s La Poste are providing limited e-mail and ‘digital locker’ services that allow citizens to store and send important documentation such as tax returns, insurance bills and bank statements. The idea is that users can have their ‘public information’ — which in most cases the government already has handled by public services and use private technology companies for their other communication and productivity needs.

None of these services is looking to compete with Google or Microsoft; they instead provide people with a way of having European data remain on European soil. In some cases, the postal operators charge for the service, which also provides an economic incentive for the government in question.

Prime Minister Modi is certainly right in prioritising Internet access and digital infrastructure — and partnerships with Silicon Valley should be encouraged, if only to see whether they will be successful — but running a race without knowing the finishing line is a losing game. The Sino-Russian censorship-prone model comes with its own pitfalls and does not even have to be a source of inspiration; the portable, secure digital identity system of Estonia is a good starting point.

What is imperative is that the question of how digital India should look should be answered before the government finishes implementing Digital India. It is in the interests of Silicon Valley to produce an Internet that is mediated by Facebook, Google and Microsoft and it is for us to decide whether we want to reject or accept that outcome. In this scenario, an Internet with BRICS characteristics may not only be admirable, but could also end up becoming a necessary goal.

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