The problem

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RAPID globalization of firms and markets has inexorably accelerated through technology. As was the case in previous eras of globalization, countries will have to devise new governance mechanisms, rules and standards to regulate new patterns of technological interactions between states and non-state actors alike. Traditional rules are being questioned, reframed and broken. Private actors, both multinational corporations and ‘cyber mercenaries’ are acquiring increasing importance and relevance. Existing and emerging international regimes and frameworks are under pressure to mobilize countries to create rules to address problems wrought by new technologies related to artificial intelligence, big data, social media, automation, drones, autonomous weapons and malware incursions.

The growing chasm between the pace of technological change and their implications must be addressed through renewed international cooperation or by negotiating global rules and norms that could minimize their adverse effects. Traditional global governance frameworks have attempted to forge rules around the governance of emerging technologies. The United Nations is involved through the UN Group of Governmental Experts (UN GGE) and Open-Ended Working Group (OEWG) that seek to regulate state behaviour in cyberspace. Regimes like the WTO are discussing issues related to the digital economy, e-commerce and data. Multi-stakeholder frameworks like the Paris Call for trust and security in cyberspace, Christchurch call to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content and the Prague 5G conference have surfaced, out of necessity, to manage issues under their remit.

India stands at the forefront of these debates for two reasons. First, India has a clear interest in shaping international technology rules to accelerate domestic technological transformations that have become integral to its economic trajectory. India is going through a period of extraordinary technological change measured through increasing rates of digitization, record digital penetration and use of the internet to structure patterns of political, commercial and social interaction. The most prominent marker of India’s technological transition has been the smartphone around which several major initiatives like ‘Digital India’ have been devised. Besides Digital India, the momentum around and interest in the public development of technology has led to an array of targeted programmes around artificial intelligence, drones, blockchain, quantum computing and big data. No doubt, these technologies are having massive effects internally which are being addressed through domestic laws and policies. India has an obligation to shape international rules covering these technologies like 5G development, artificial intelligence, data and digital taxation are vital to ensure they mesh with domestic rules. Incongruence or passivity vis-à-vis digital rulemaking globally will raise costs for Indian firms who have to readjust their business practices and models and New Delhi that will have to reorient its regulatory approach.

Broadly, international rules covering these emerging technologies could also affect how India chooses to regulate technology issues, specifically whether domestic rules would privilege the state or private sector. Thus far, India has placed the state at the heart of the current ‘technological turn.’ Yet, the dominant role of the state has only intensified questions around the use of these technologies that enhance state power relative to that of citizens. Several technology issues like data, 5G, autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence and digital taxation considered in this Seminar issue deal directly with how the Indian state should regulate technologies for the ‘public good’. That said, the state is not alone here. The articles in this issue also point to a ‘crowded’ policy space where India’s positions are being shaped and reshaped by private interests in India and those abroad whose material fates are tied to how Indian policymakers opt to regulate technologies.

Second, global technology debates matter for India because the costs of not actively engaging in shaping or influencing digital rulemaking are high. More than ever, India’s economic, political and security future(s) hinge on procuring, availing and deploying technologies and having robust rules that accelerate the empowerment of India’s vast demographics while deterring their use against India’s strategic objectives. Existing conflicts and rivalries get mapped onto technologies as India’s competitors rely on cyberspace to target India through cyber attacks or by closing the space India has to develop its own technologies and leverage global supply chains in that cause. Symmetric international rules that set clear and accountable standards matter when developing and deploying technologies. The alternative is living in a technological era with little clout, an untenable option for a country that will become more, not less, reliant on technologies to advance economic and security interests.

The articles in this ‘Seminar’ issue cover the teeming landscape of global governance mechanisms and arrangements, some formal and others inchoate, that seek to establish new norms, rules and standards that countries can endorse and internalize to develop and deploy technologies for economic growth and minimize their pernicious social and political effects. Finding a balance between these objectives will not be easy but countries like India have no choice.

Galvanizing global consensus on a legal regime to foster responsible state behaviour in cyberspace has proved to be a tough challenge. In a detailed articulation of the various multilateral, multi-stakeholder and private sector efforts aimed at fostering this consensus, Gunjan Chawla argues that India’s unwavering commitment to preserve its sovereign interests in this fragmented governance space is clear. Global governance is imperative for restraining, if not halting, the disruptive effects of weaponized cyberspace. Trisha Ray argues that India’s ‘long game’ on Autonomous Weapons Systems adopts a similar trajectory. Evaluating India’s stances on AWS, Ray believes that India’s strategy seeks to protect national security interests while trying to balance regulation both with AI driven growth and India’s democratic obligations.

While some countries have rushed to set up robust frameworks for 5G development and investment, India, as Manoj Kewalramani points out has opted to go slow. Kewalramani believes India’s caution is driven by various factors including the economics of India’s telecom sector, the unique nature of its spectrum allocation policies, and of course, security and strategic concerns. India’s choice of not imposing a ban on Chinese telecommunication vendors, including Huawei, from participating in Indian 5G trials is to further strategic room for manoeuvre. Sooner, not later, particularly with the fraught geopolitical realities brought on by the COVID-19 crisis , strategic ambiguity will need to be abandoned with a decision taken.

Sameer Patil and Arun Vishwanathan trace India’s fitful engagement with multilateral export control regimes with potential benefits to be accrued in areas like nuclear trade, defence modernization and civilian space. Going forward, Patil and Vishwanathan argue that India must reprise its role as a rule-shaper to ensure export control regimes like the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Missile Technology Control Regime regulate the nefarious impacts of dual use surveillance technology. Vidushi Marda sees a similar opportunity in the field of Artificial Intelligence where India can lead with the design, standardization and reasonable limits on the deployment of these systems, instead of rushing blindly into developing them to advance economic objectives.

India has been a fervent proponent of data sovereignty, a maxim that seeks to ensure global technology companies operating in India do not derive rabid profits from the data of Indian citizens. As we demonstrate in our piece, this idea has been pushed through impulsive measures on data localization and non-personal data governance; concurrently, India has also engaged in multilateral pushback against efforts that hasten the free flow of data. Divij Joshi shares our scepticism of this ‘data sovereignty’ push given the government’s centralization tendencies and systematic undermining of individual sovereignty at the expense of what he calls ‘other valid conceptions or imaginations of data governance.’ India can do more to dismantle structures of technological power through domestic and global leadership on issues like competition, digital taxation and the liberalization of intellectual property protections.

The final frontier of global technology governance is the regulation of speech on social media platforms. Originally billed as the power to connect, social media platforms are now dividing and spreading hatred. The problem is a global one but the solution, as we argue with Torsha Sarkar, is local. Regulating free speech cannot be agnostic to the social, economic and cultural context and must be driven through law and policy that reflect these factors. Multilateral efforts, however noble, will likely be inadequate.

Finally, practitioners require academic knowledge as ammunition while articulating and defending India’s positions within multilateral fora. In a riveting interview, Ambassador Asoke Mukerji, India’s former Permanent Representative to the United Nations, discusses with great enthusiasm his multilateral experiences and how he sees India shaping global technology debates in the years to come.

As this issue of ‘Seminar’ demonstrates, there are no easy answers to these pressing global governance questions but there are clear interests, constraints and costs should India desist from influencing these multilateral discussions. Questions around curtailing state power with respect to technology will fundamentally rest on rules and laws that require careful deliberation and resolution but the desire to draft such rules has not been forthcoming partly due to the vacuum that exists globally vis-à-vis technology governance. As the world’s largest democracy, India’s distinct economic and demographic leverage places it in an unique position to shape global technology rules that serve its strategic interests. Simply put, India has the potential to play a significant role in the ongoing digital worldmaking.