India and the geopolitics of technology | Analysis

ByRudra Chaudhuri
Dec 04, 2020 11:18 PM IST

Develop a coherent position across the domain of trade, law, finance and diplomacy based on domestic and international requirements

Splinternet, the balkanisation of the internet, digital sovereignty, and data localisation are some of the more popular terms that have come to define the debate on the future of data, and, more broadly, on the future of technology. The argument boils down to the different ways in which governments and transnational organisations (such as the European Union) choose to access, use, and allow data to flow across borders.

India is the world’s largest open data market. It is a treasure trove for big tech firms, as much as it is for firms within India wanting to expand operations outside its borders(Shutterstock)
India is the world’s largest open data market. It is a treasure trove for big tech firms, as much as it is for firms within India wanting to expand operations outside its borders(Shutterstock)

Countries that have closed their data markets to external actors — such as China — are commonly referred to as digital authoritarianists. Those that are guided by judicial standards, the rule of law, and support the freer — but not always free — movement of data have come to be known as digital democracies. The political, ideological, and economic tensions between, and within, these categories of actors shape what might be called the geopolitics of technology.

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This form of geopolitics is as much about competing domestic regulations, the renewed focus on anti-trust laws, and domestic standards on privacy legislations, as it is about international affairs. Greater cooperation on Artificial Intelligence (AI) or blockchain technologies, between entities in different countries, requires mediation and cooperation across borders. This is a matter of data diplomacy.

At least 14 countries have appointed negotiators to shape data diplomacy. Designations such as tech ambassador, ambassador of innovations, ambassador for digital affairs, and ambassador for cyber diplomacy are becoming increasingly common.

And they all want to deal with India. It is, after all, the largest open data market in the world. Close to 600 million Indians currently use 4G data. India also has the highest per capita consumption of data (above 10 GB per month) anywhere in the world. It is a treasure trove for big tech firms, as much as it is for those firms within India wanting to expand operations outside its borders.

Yet, India’s unique data demography is unlikely to sustain current levels of international interest and domestic needs in the long-term. A lot will depend on the kind of digital democracy that India aspires to be. How open or closed will it be to the movement of data across its borders, is the moot question for the fast-growing number of global “tech ambassadors”.

To an extent, the question of data openness will be resolved as India’s Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) becomes a law, potentially in 2021. A joint parliamentary committee is currently examining the PDPB. This crucial legislature will outline localisation requirements for personal data, thereby setting out clearer rules for the cross-border movement of data. It will also lead to the creation of a Data Protection Authority (DPA) to regulate the use of personal data. Over the next year, there is a very good chance that India will have developed its legal digital architecture.

More urgently than before, India needs to consider what exactly it wants out of the fast-changing geopolitics around technology. This goes beyond banning Chinese apps or considering how India can absorb the slow move to diversify global supply chains. This is about ensuring India’s evolving domestic data architecture supports its international interests, with the clear view to benefit from the same. The aim must be to negotiate its weight in data and find the right balance for India’s future between localisation and internationalisation.

This balancing act has much to do with conceptualising a centralising vision, as well as with administrative organisation. There are a range of ministries that are involved in the PDPB, as well as those that focus on the future of emerging technologies such as AI. The ministry of electronics and information technology (MeitY) mooted the PDPB. The ministry of commerce and industry has taken positions internationally with regard to data.

In September 2020, the minister of commerce and industry, Piyush Goyal, made clear that India was not in a position to sign onto a charter at the G20, known as the Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT), and for excellent reasons. How could India sign onto an international norm-setting agreement, without first passing the PDPB? Moreover, the minister made clear that “equitable access to data” was central to India’s concerns.

The ministry of external affairs created the new, emerging, and strategic technologies (NEST) division in January 2020. The focus is on strategic technologies such as 5G, emerging technologies, and tech diplomacy. The division hit the ground running. It invested in an initiative along with the office of the principal scientific adviser to the government to assess the transformational effects of disruptive technologies such as digital currencies, big data computing, communication hardware, and others. Moreover, senior officials in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) oversee diverse elements of domestic and international data-related developments.

It will be key to connect these assorted elements of the State by way of a coherent narrative that articulates a common Indian position on the future of technology.

More importantly, it is essential for these different domains — between trade, law, finance, and diplomacy — to negotiate the right balance between domestic needs, international requirements, and India’s long-term position in a market area that can be — but automatically will not be — India’s for the taking.

To start with, the government could consider appointing its own coordinator for technology. The aim should not be to add to the bean count of global tech ambassadors, but to appoint at least a minister of state-ranked individual to synthesise India’s pulsating story with the view to effectively shape the geopolitics of technology.

Rudra Chaudhuri is director, Carnegie India
The views expressed are personal
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