What Digital India should mean: A tech policy for the Indian future : 05-03-2019

As we head into the general election campaign, the challenge to frame technology policy for the crucial next decade is before the political parties. The current state of policy reflects one perspective, to which BJP has firmly attached itself.

This policy framework is protectionist: it views “data sovereignty” as a policy objective, to be achieved by requiring Indians’ data to be stored in India, which establishes a non-tariff barrier favouring local firms over global “platform” companies.

This policy framework is nationalist: it seeks to architect “Digital India” around a public-private partnership in the “India Stack”, whose base is Aadhaar and which is just open enough to allow a decisive advantage to Indian finance, telecommunications and IT services companies without explicitly excluding foreigners.

In its protectionism and its particular form of nationalism, this policy framework shows a sort of ironic nostalgia for 20th century solutions to 20th century versions of the problems we currently face. How should Congress and other opposition parties respond?

There is now a societal consensus that “Digital India” must mean protecting Indian citizens against multinational appropriation of their behaviour data, identities, very lives. But the effect of current policy is to use protectionism to build an alternative local ecosystem that will gather and commercially exploit fully comprehensive data about Indians’ market activity and personal behaviour.

Such a local ecosystem will make a fortune for local tycoons in data and provide government with a full-service 21st century surveillance platform whose horrible potential for misuse far exceeds George Orwell’s imagination. These outcomes are not in the social or economic interest of the Indian people

The tech policy platforms of the opposition parties must proclaim a better approach to beating digital colonialism, which does not merely put the same imperial form into different, local hands. Global trade in services is the key to India’s prosperity in the 21st century: it is this society’s comparative advantage.

Services are created and delivered not where the hardware is, but where the smart, creative and communicative people are. India’s tech policy should be based around exporting services, not around localising data or building local bitbarn business for multinationals.

Indian citizens need real, effective privacy law, to guard them against exploitation by businesses comprehensively collecting behaviour data to influence citizens’ market and political activity. But so do people everywhere else, too. This is our business opportunity: to provide privacy not only to our citizens, but as a commercial services bundle to people everywhere, including in wealthy European societies, which are alive to the threat to privacy.

The European Union has grasped the social problems presented by the US platform companies and their form of “surveillance capitalism”. The EU’s general data privacy regulations (GDPR) are designed to regulate and control the data miners. But even the large fines beginning to be levied by European countries against Google and Facebook under GDPR cannot fundamentally change the nature of the industry or the threats it poses .

India can. By setting a “best in world” standard of privacy protection in new legislation, India can produce and export privacy to the world by competing on a pro-privacy basis with the platform companies. There is no European Google, Facebook, or Twitter and there won’t be. European societies are not configured to provide inexpensive cloud-based, privacy respecting services (such as email, photo sharing, brief messaging and microblogging) to billions of people in competition with the US giants.

But the Indian labour market has the skills, the scale, and the educational capacity to build its own “non-platforms”, from which Indian and global consumers in their billions can buy for a reasonable monthly price, what Google, Facebook and Twitter will only provide at the cost of everyone’s privacy, all the time, forever. So the key components of a better anti-colonial tech policy can be summarised as follows:

– Enable technical skills crucial to the 21st century services market throughout the economy. Give every Indian student and every small business access to a basic server in “the cloud” at a subsidised price, or for free, for example, to make not just learning, but entrepreneurship easier.

– Maximise access to software knowledge and value by fully implementing existing policy requiring government use of free and open source software (FOSS). Government acquisition and creation of software everyone can share vastly increases access to knowledge and enablement of learning and business throughout society.

– Requiring the India Stack to be built from FOSS parts will level the playing field of digital India, reducing the tendencies towards oligopoly and unfair competition.

– Make data privacy and protection of citizens’ data from MNC platforms not just a regulatory objective, but a global business opportunity. New “data protection” legislation resulting from the Supreme Court’s decisions in the Aadhaar cases should provide complete compatibility with Europe’s GDPR, but go further, to make India the legal, technological and services hub for the global pro-privacy revolution that consumers and businesses around the world have now realised they want.

– Position India as the creator of “AI with human values”, in which the technological breakthroughs of the next decades will coexist and develop under the overarching ethical principles of democracy, freedom and human dignity. Like the “peaceful atom”, this is the appropriate position for India as a scientific and technical powerhouse committed to development for the sake of humans, not for military dominance.

India should become the anti-China of the so-called fourth industrial revolution, committed to using the technology of machine learning to enhance democracy and civil liberty, not – as in Beijing’s vision – to destroy it.

Source : Economic Times

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