Trading away our digital rights

India must first secure its digital sovereignty before it can begin global trade talks

April 21, 2017 12:15 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

Smart home interface with button and icons providing control to temperature and lamps from mobile app

Smart home interface with button and icons providing control to temperature and lamps from mobile app

Global trade treaties are no longer just about reducing tariff. They represent a whole new global legal system supplanting national policy space and sovereignty, in the interest of global big business. With the digital phenomenon restructuring most social sectors, it is little surprise that global trade negotiations are now eyeing the digital area in an attempt to pre-emptively colonise it.

Who owns big data

Big data is the key resource in the digital space. It is freely collected or mined from developing countries, and converted, or manufactured, into digital intelligence in developed countries, mostly the U.S. This digital intelligence forms a kind of “social brain” that begins to control different sectors and extract monopoly rents.

Uber’s chief asset, for instance, is not a network of cars and drivers. It is digital intelligence about commuting, public transport, roads, traffic, city events, personal behavioural characteristics of commuters and drivers, and so on.

To judge how the digital society is shaping, just extrapolate this situation to every sector; not only the regular commercial ones but also key social areas of education, health, agriculture, and, indeed, governance.

It is important to frame who owns data and digital intelligence, and how their value should be socially distributed. Most key data required for policymaking is increasingly with global data companies. Would the society or government then buy data and intelligence even for crucial public purposes from these digital companies, when the data actually come from our various social and personal interactions over digital platforms? Does the ownership of the platform give corporations economic ownership of all the data so produced? Is ownership of data of sensitive sectors to be treated differently? These are key political economy questions that must be sorted out first.

Accessing the network

Fronting for the global big business, developed countries make three key demands at digital trade talks. The first is a free and unhindered access to the “network” running throughout our society to mine social and personal data from every nook and corner. This includes full access to local networks, right to set up networks, no custom duties on digital goods, no requirement of local presence, no local technology use or technology standards commitments, and no source code transparency for digital applications that run through our social and personal spaces. Basically, India must give up its right to regulate digital technologies and networks within its territory.

Such regulation is required to ensure an equal playing field, open standards, privacy and security-related protections, promoting local technology content and other positive discriminations, like for open-source software which is Indian policy for public sector use, and for economic and social protections. We are being asked to give up our technology or digital sovereignty even before we have been able to identify and institute our digital rights, policies, laws and regulation.

The second demand in trade discussions is of ensuring completely free flow of data across borders, with no requirement of local storing, even for sensitive sectors like governance, banking, health, etc. Free global flow of data is a significant expression of self-declared ownership by global digital corporations over the social and personal data that they collect from everywhere, including India. The third key demand is the exclusion from future regulation of all services other than those already committed to a negative list, which will of course include e-versions of every sector.

India has been resisting global digital trade negotiations. But attempts will be made to flatter its self-image of an IT or digital superpower to seek concessions. India’s global IT business relationships are largely B2B where the principal party is abroad, and owns the involved data.

India has much native technical and entrepreneurial capabilities in the digital area, and to match them, a huge domestic market. Conditions are extremely good for developing strong domestic digital industry. But for this, India must stave off pressure for entering into binding global commitments that would forever kill any such prospects, apart from disabling Indian policymakers from appropriately regulating the digitisation of various sectors.

The WTO ministerial in Argentina in December 2017 will be a key battleground for whether WTO should start negotiating digital trade issues. These issues also figure in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership talks among ASEAN-plus countries (including India). India must resist any digital trade negotiations at this time. It has little to gain from them, and much to lose. It must first build its digital sovereignty — and digital rights — before it can begin negotiating a part of it in global trade talks.

Parminder Jeet Singh works with the Bengaluru-based NGO, IT for Change.

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