Shaping the digital world

India’s passivity in influencing global tech rules must end

July 30, 2020 12:15 am | Updated 01:10 am IST



On June 29, the Indian government banned 59 Chinese apps , including TikTok, ostensibly to protect security, sovereignty and privacy. There was no public review of these apps and no assessment of the implications of this ban for the right to free speech of many people, particularly in non-urban spaces.

Like India, the U.S. is considering banning TikTok citing national security concerns. American allies and partners including India are now wondering whether they should allow Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE to build their 5G networks. Linkages between countries, particularly in the tech sector, are being exploited and manipulated to achieve security or strategic interests. Indian decoupling with Chinese tech comes in the wake of border tensions, while the U.S. continues its trade war with China.

The Hindu Explains | What will be the impact of Chinese apps ban?

Long-term strategic thinking

While banning Chinese apps could have been a strategic necessity in the short run, the hastiness of this move should propel long-term strategic thinking on how digital issues constrain India’s foreign policy. Reactive and ad hoc tech squabbles cannot be a replacement for a robust foreign policy that marries India’s constitutional ethos with the twin needs of national security and economic growth. The realisation of this vision requires India to engage more confidently in global technology governance debates and shape incumbent rules and norms.

The problems caused by various technologies and technology firms have generated demand for international negotiations, to create viable rules and norms. For instance, social media companies are facing a backlash after years of ignoring abuse on their platforms that stoke social and ethnic tensions. Cyberattacks are rising from state and non-state actors. Conflicts over national laws concerning data use and storage are common. Issues like data, 5G, AI, social media and cybersecurity have domestic and global effects — who controls these technologies and how they are developed and used matters greatly as it defines how nations trade, behave and fight with each other.

These interactions hinge on drafting rules and norms that provide clarity and deter subversive behaviour. For India, the costs of not actively shaping technology rules are high. India’s economic, political and security future rests on deploying technologies and having robust rules that accelerate the empowerment of its vast demographics while deterring the use of such technologies against strategic objectives.

Comment | Reforming India’s digital policy

Global governance is imperative for restraining, if not halting, the disruptive effects of cyberspace as the number of nefarious actors online proliferate. India has been a member of five of the six Group of Governmental Experts processes set up by the United Nations to foster norms for responsible state behaviour in cyberspace. Yet, despite being one of the most cyber-attacked countries in the world, India has not sufficiently exercised its diplomatic clout to weigh in on critical fissures in this debates — one that continues to be dominated by the United States and western allies on the one side, and China and Russia on the other. This passivity must end.

Apart from protecting security interests through these debates, India must function as a rule-shaper to preserve the civil, political and economic rights of its citizens. New Delhi must ensure that export control regimes like the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime regulate the use and impacts of dual-use surveillance technology that have been used to target Indian journalists, lawyers and activists. Officials must extend the ethos of fundamental rights guarantees to global debates on Internet shutdowns and facial recognition technology while ensuring domestic policy fulfils constitutional responsibilities. By doing so, Indian thinking could draw a sharp contrast to authoritarian narratives propelled by countries like China — burnishing India’s reputation globally.

Comment | How not to tame the digital dragon

Economic assertiveness

India has been assertive when technology debates affect the economy. As campaigns like Make in India and Digital India get ramped up, policy enthusiasm on e-commerce and data flows has risen. Until recently, India’s cautious approach on 5G, involving Huawei in its plans, was influenced by a desire to have space to allow multiple vendors who can meet India’s telecom needs. New Delhi’s disinclination to support unfettered data flows across borders is propelled by ‘data sovereignty’, a vision that privileges domestic innovation over foreign services. Unsurprisingly, India has led multilateral pushback at forums like the World Trade Organization and G20 against efforts that hasten the free flow of data though domestic positions appear to have relaxed with the latest iteration of the data protection legislation. This pronounced emphasis to nationalise data, however, could pose problems for entrepreneurs and start-ups who prefer relaxed data-sharing rules to foster innovation and product development. The sheer volume of data generated by citizens at home makes India an essential destination for foreign technology firms enabling India to exercise its authority in shaping global trade rules, but this should occur balancing the interests of all Indian stakeholders in mind, not privileging the large and powerful.

As a large democracy, India’s distinct economic and demographic position allows it to shape, influence and constrain global technology rules that serve its strategic interests. It can and must significantly shape the making of the digital world.

Karthik Nachiappan is a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore; Arindrajit Basu is Research Manager at the Centre for Internet and Society

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