As Quad focuses on tech, the debate on standard setting

The control of critical technologies and their supply chains remain essential for all States to project their geopolitical influence. However, having a grip on the governance mechanism of these critical technologies in the form of technical standards can be a gamechanger in the geostrategic field
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Representational Image. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Updated on Sep 22, 2021 02:30 PM IST
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ByArjun Gargeyas

Technology will be at the forefront of the first in-person Quad summit in the United States (US). The control of critical technologies and their supply chains remain essential for all States to project their geopolitical influence. However, having a grip on the governance mechanism of these critical technologies in the form of technical standards can prove to be a gamechanger in the geostrategic field.

A technical standard serves as a means for governance in the realm of a wide range of technologies. With several emerging fields such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), blockchain, and 5G, there is a need to establish a common direction of functioning for all States and private companies undertaking research and development in the field of technology. While this remains the idea behind the setting up of technical standards, recent developments have broadened the scope of the necessity of these standards.

Setting the standard

Technical standards have historically been a private affair of big technology companies. A considerable investment would have gone in when developing critical technologies. Most of these technological advancements have been spearheaded by private companies. In some cases, these companies have enjoyed State support with the majority of the funds provided by the State. Generally, huge amounts of money would have been infused into the system. It is, therefore, in the interests of these actors to leverage the most from any innovation in the technical field. An international technology standard helps gain an economic and technological advantage over any competitors, forcing the rest to follow a particular way of designing the technology.

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But in recent times, a steady increase in the presence of governments’ participation has been observed in the process of standard-setting. States are now openly advocating for certain standards to be adopted as universal, which will eventually benefit the State. A company situated on its soil and owning a global standard in critical technology would mean the control of the technology supply chain. A State’s ability to obtain technological self-sufficiency in a particular domain serves as a basis for using international standards to its advantage.

Aligning tech and foreign policy

With international technical standards creating ripple effects in the geopolitical realm, there is a need for governments to view this from a broader perspective. A bridge between technology and foreign policy by the State must be created as they complement each other in the current political climate. There have already been calls, by academics and experts from both the European Union (EU) and Australia, for their foreign ministries to play an active role in the AI standardisation process.

Several technologically developed countries such as India and Israel have a major presence in the global technology markets, but remain a very primitive player in the international standard organisations. They have very little or no influence in the decision-making of global technical standard-setting.

This, coupled with the private industries and their ever-increasing role in swaying governments’ key decisions, makes it imperative for States to include international standards as part of their foreign policy agenda. A technology policy perspective must be developed by foreign policy experts in the country when dealing with decisions by international standards bodies and other organisations responsible for setting standards.

Standard-setting and the State

The creation of a working group within the government on technology standardisation can help streamline the process of the State’s involvement in the standard-setting process. This can be an intra- or inter-agency group which would be responsible for the assessment of different standards across technology domains. The group can comprise a mix of industry experts in the respective technical fields and bureaucrats who have considerable expertise in dealing with international technological forums. This can provide a perfect balance when dealing with the intricacies of emerging technologies. The group can then recommend to the government which standards seem suitable to adopt for the country.

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National level committees can be formed to oversee the working of both standard developing organisations (SDOs) and special interest groups (SIGs). This gives the State an insight into how it can maintain its presence in the international standards domain. Committees that are formed might be used to regulate and improve the functioning of national standards organisations. This can in turn help in strengthening the government’s case at the international level.

Greater representation of non-State actors

The effective use of the public sector is necessary to increase the State’s influence in the SDOs. Many public sector entities in the country still have considerable clout in the policy decisions of the government. Representatives from the public sector — who are technically adept — must be sent as the country’s official representatives to international standards organisations. Respected experts from these public sector companies can be made use of to voice the State’s concerns and opinions when it might be forced to adopt a particular standard.

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Representation from the private sector, academics, and civil society organisations must also be encouraged. These non-State actors have an important role in determining technical international standards. Technocrats and highly knowledgeable personalities in the field are those who have credibility in international circles and can influence the standards process. SDOs need advocates from outside the government or the public sector who can put forth their opinions regarding how particular standards might fare in the country and if it is feasible for both the specific technology sector and the State to adhere to the standard which is set as the global one.

Creating the ideal standard

The foremost objective of an international standard is to allow easier access and dissemination of the particular technology to different parts of the world. The interoperability criteria must be satisfied to create a common framework for governing the use of the specific technology. With the current trends and increased political interference in the decision-making process of selecting a global standard, the establishment of an “ideal” standard remains the priority for any standards organisation.

Increased international collaboration in terms of standardisation activities provides a platform for the creation of technical standard alliances. Along the same lines of technology transfers between countries, joint standards can be formed and adapted to suit the needs of the entire region. Cooperation between intergovernmental agencies, especially in the technology sector, between like-minded countries can help developing countries also have a say in the standards-setting process. The monopoly of the West in these processes has been challenged by China in the 21st century. But other technically adept countries can make their voices heard through standards partnerships.

Arjun Gargeyas is a research analyst, Takshashila Institution

The views expressed are personal

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Thursday, December 09, 2021