Who rules cyberspace?

A new architecture of social power and control is getting built with its core in the U.S. India should work through the BRICS group to develop an alternative to this Internet hegemony

June 06, 2015 12:39 am | Updated 12:39 am IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

The Internet evokes a deep dilemma of whether ‘to govern or not’. Few things work as well as the Internet does: it’s always on, always obliging, and consists of endless possibilities, routinely conjuring wonders that we have not dreamt of. On the other hand, it is difficult not to be troubled by how the Internet is everywhere, but without any clear means of accountability and political reaction to how much it is changing around us. But without sufficient clarity regarding the nature of the problems and the required solutions, mere general political scepticism cannot hold a candle to the populist governmental-hands-off-the-Internet sentiment. The latter is expectedly strongest among the richer classes, who trust the devices of the market to get the Internet to do their bidding. Other than routine knee-jerk reactions over people freely expressing themselves on the Internet, which could threaten various kinds of power elites, while also sometimes causing genuine security and cultural concerns, there exists no serious political conceptions around the Internet in India today, much less its appropriate governance in public interest.

This state of affairs is quite detrimental to society as the Internet is becoming closely associated with social power and control in almost all areas. It has become like a global neural system running through and transforming all social sectors. Whoever has control over this neural network begins to wield unprecedented power — economic, political, social and cultural. Two elements of this emerging system are the connectivity architecture and the continuous bits of information generated by each and every micro activity of our increasingly digitised existence — what is generally known as Big Data. Even a superficial scan of how the triple phenomenon of digitisation, networking and datafication is occurring in every area will suggest the nature of consolidation of power in the hands of anyone who can control these two elements.

Every sector is impacted

Take the agriculture sector for example. Monsanto is now increasingly a Big Data company, as it holds almost field-wise micro information on climate, soil type, neighbourhood agri-patterns, and so on. Such data will form the backbone of even its traditional agri-offerings. It is easy to understand how data control-based lock-ins are going to be even more powerful and monopolistic than the traditional dependencies in this sector. Recently, John Deere, the world’s largest agricultural machinery maker, told the U.S. Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because computer code runs through modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the vehicle to operate the vehicle”. There is a pattern of end-to-end informational controls.

Similar developments are occurring in every other sector. Policymaking and governance are becoming dangerously dependent on Big Data, even as the public sector is all but giving up its traditional responsibilities for public statistics. The state is increasingly dependent on data collected and controlled by a few global corporations. Data companies such as Google are entering verticals like automobile and health in a manner that is threatening the traditional players in these sectors. Doctors subscribing to medical information networks carrying patient data, disease demographics, pharma information, and so on could soon become but appendages of the network. The network they think right now is a mere support may become the primary agent in the relationship. Such is the power of the network, vis-a-vis its peripheral users. Network and data providers in the education sector sell their services in the name of personalised offerings for every student, and every context. Schools with resources may find them alluring, but then they merely add to the power of the monopolistic networks, at the expense of their peripheral users. As their power consolidates, so do the terms of engagements mutate in the favour of the network controllers.

Here we have deliberately used examples of power shifts across whole sectors induced by digital networks. On the individual-use front, it is perhaps even easier to see the kind of social power exercised by those who can at will alter the algorithms of Facebook and Google, which increasingly provide us the logic and pattern of our social relationships and of means of accessing information and opinion making.

All this should set us thinking about who really controls the digital connectivity patterns and Big Data. In this regard, one can speak of a global unipolar networked-digital complex, with its elements of political and commercial power, both overwhelmingly concentrated in the U.S..

We are therefore witness to a phenomenon which is of extreme social importance, spanning all sectors of society. And the powerful levers of control of this phenomenon almost entirely lie in an eco-political domain over which the Indian society or state has no control, and very limited influence. This should be a public policy nightmare. However, you would not suspect it if you were watching the political discourse in India, not only inside the government but also outside. One comes across periodic discussions on freedom of expression issues, while the state, and some civil society actors, have begun to show heightened security-related anxieties. But one hears nothing about the overall new architecture of social power and control that is getting built, with its core in the U.S. It implicates very significant long-term economic, political, social and cultural issues that should greatly concern a country like India. Even freedom of expression and security are significantly related to this new power architecture.

Governments are traditionally slow on the take with regard to such rapidly moving phenomena, however socially important they might be. Civil society engagement in this area is dominated by middle class interests, whereby markets tend to be considered as essentially benign. Their major struggle is against the excesses of the state, the Internet no doubt being a significant new arena for such excesses. This has resulted in serious blind-spots regarding the larger architectural issues about the global Internet, with far-reaching economic, social and cultural implications. It is urgently required to undertake a systematic examination of these issues, situating them in the geo-political and geo-economic logics that overwhelmingly drive them. Appropriate domestic and foreign policies have to be developed within such a larger understanding.

India’s geopolitical options

Even for a country of India’s stature, it is not easy to play the geo-political game on its own, and certainly not in an area viewed by the dominant actors as among the most crucial for establishing global political and economic domination. No quarters will be given here, as has been clear from the pronounced non-activity in the limited UN-based global forums dealing with Internet governance issues. This, therefore, is not a field for the faint-hearted; it requires strong real politik approaches.

The only option left for India is to go with the strong nations that are similarly placed with respect to U.S.’s digital hegemony. Although this is one area where the EU countries are almost as much the victims as other countries, it is unlikely that they will break their geo-political alliance with the U.S. any time soon. They would either keep suffering silently, or seek solutions at the bilateral level with the U.S., and through strengthening EU level regulation. Just last month, the economic ministers of Germany and France sought a “general regulatory framework for ‘essential digital platforms’” at the EU level.

India should work through the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to develop an alternative to the U.S.-based global unipolar networked-digital complex. This may be the only viable path right now. It could be difficult for BRICS to work together on issues involving civil and political rights, for which reason the cooperation could focus on economic issues. The global architecture of the Internet today is mostly determined by its geo-economic underpinnings.

Going beyond the typical one-off treatment of Internet and big data issues, BRICS must begun to see them in a larger geo-systemic framework. The last BRICS summit gave a resounding response to the global financial hegemonies by setting up a New Development Bank, and an alternative reserve currency system. The next BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015 should come up with a similar systemic response to the U.S.-centred Internet. This can be achieved by pulling together a strong framework for BRICS cooperation on digital economy. That would be the biggest game changer with respect to what is now a complete stalemate over global governance of the Internet.

(Parminder Jeet Singh works with the Bengaluru-based NGO, IT for Change. He has been an advisor to the Chair of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum. Email: parminder@itforchange.net)

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