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IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw on creating a new world order for internet regulations

Vaishnaw spoke at a conference to identify a few common challenges facing tech ministers, including threats of cyber warfare.

In a wide-ranging discussion at the Confederation of Indian Industry’s (CII) Partnership Summit 2021, India’s IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw shared his thoughts on the challenges faced by governments in regulating the internet and India’s role in leading the world in this task, the growing risk of cyber warfare and how countries should prepare for it, and the measures taken by the government to make internet and smartphones available to all sections of society.

The discussion gives us an insight into how the Indian government is thinking about some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today.

Can India lead the world in internet regulation?

“We have a really fantastic history that even at independence, we have managed to create norms which a large proportion of the world had signed up to with non-alignment. Now we need to find some like-minded countries on standards of privacy, data localisation, et cetera. Is it possible for India to take the lead in setting some global standards around data protocols?,” moderator Janamejaya Sinha asked Ashwini Vaishnaw, to which the Minister responded:

  • Technology is all-pervasive: “The fragility of supply chains is not purely because of COVID. It is also because of the disruptions in technology. Whole industries are being disrupted. The rising geopolitical tensions, they are also one of the big drivers of how technology disruptions are feeding in because technology is all-pervasive, it doesn’t understand the boundaries that we understand as politicians or as a society,” Vaishnaw said.
  • Impact of technology still unknown: “The impact of social media platforms, the impact of Big Tech, the impact of artificial intelligence, it’s still unknown. […] When I interact with my counterparts in Europe, US, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, everywhere the ministers responsible for technology are grappling with the same points:
    • Are the children safe?
    • Is my data privacy maintained?
    • Can I say that democracy is safe? Can it not be influenced in such a big way?
    • Is the news that I am reading real news or fake news?
    • Are the people who are creating the content getting the right remuneration for that?
    • Is society getting more polarised because of everyday connectivity, which we thought would democratise the entire thing and the society would become more harmonised? Is it moving in the opposite direction?”
  • We should have a new thought process and India would take lead in this: 

“I think time has come when we should all have a new thought process. A new agreement on this. The way the United Nations came up, the way a new global order emerged in the 1940s after the Second World War, a similar is needed at this point. India would participate in this. India would take lead in this, and we are very much deeply involved in these discussions at every level within our country and in all international forums.” – Ashwini Vaishnaw

Growing risk of cyber warfare and India’s preparedness

Pointing out that one of the fears that the current geopolitics is creating is the risk of cyber warfare, moderator Janamejaya Sinha asked how prepared are we if some country decides to launch disruption inside our country through cyber warfare?

“The whole world is today facing this challenge,” Vaishnaw said while laying out how nations can respond to it:

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  1. Understanding between countries: “First and foremost, there has to be understanding between like-minded countries that this is a common threat [and] we have to face it,” Vaishnaw said.
  2. Countries that engage in cyber-warfare must be warned: “As a global society, we must make sure that the countries which go and use cyber threats as a state weapon must be categorically told that this is not the way in which humanity has to move forward,” Vaishnaw remarked.
  3. Prepare for a possible attack:

“As a country, as India, how are you prepared. This part we are putting in lots of investment, lots of technology, lots of thought process, lots of processes, lots of education, lots of new ways of dealing with the threats. So we as a country and not just the government, as enterprises like yours, as small and medium businesses which do not have the wherewithal of getting the right tools, as every individual in this society, we have to really be prepared for an event which can have a significant impact on our society.” – Ashwini Vaishnaw.

“In the recent past, very successfully we have been able to thwart some of the cyber threats which were attempted by certain sections. We cannot be discussing them in a bigger forum like this, but many serious threats have been successfully thwarted,” Vaishnaw added.

How is India going to bridge the digital divide?

How can we give the poor more digital access and how can we get them to transition from feature phones to smartphones, Janamejaya Sinha asked Ashwini Vaishnaw.

On bringing the internet to everyone:

  1. Providing universal internet access to 1.3 billion people: “We are on [our] way. The steps taken by the telecom ministry in reaching out the optical fibre network, called the BharatNet, to every village, which is about 600 thousand villages in the country. Huge progress has happened. We have reached to the level just above the village, which is the gram panchayat, which is a group of five to seven villages,” Vaishnaw said.
  2. Subsidised tower infrastructure: To make sure that people at the farthest ends of the society, those living in very remote areas get access to the internet, the government has sanctioned 14,000 4G network towers at subsidised rates, Vaishnaw said. “In any case, in India, we have the lowest cost of data, as you are very well aware. So if you can provide the infrastructure, then the lowest cost of data is still a very affordable number,” the Minister remarked. “Last month, the Prime Minister sanctioned another 7280 villages, which is close to a billion-dollar investment in the tower infrastructure for those areas,” he added.

On making smartphones more affordable:

  • What has been done? “The country has moved forward in manufacturing mobile phones in a big way. Today, India is globally second largest mobile phone manufacturer. So with this kind of ecosystem, which has developed over the last four or five years, mobile phone costs have come down to less than Rs. 10000 in a significant way. And that’s a very important price point because that is the primary price point at which it becomes affordable to the lowest income section in the society,” Vaishnaw said. 
  • What’s next? The Minister also mentioned that the government is rolling out more initiatives to further bring down smartphones costs. “How do we make sure that all the components are also manufactured in India so that the supply chain cost reduces further? How do we manufacture chips in India? How do we have the design capabilities in India? With that ecosystem, the cost of smartphones will further reduce, and that will bring down the price point further and make it more affordable,” Vaishnaw said.

On spectrum pricing:

  • Public good element in spectrum pricing: “We as a nation and the entire society have to recognise that there is a public good element in spectrum pricing. Earlier, spectrum was seen as a resource which should maximize revenue. Today, there is a balance in the thought process between maximizing revenue and maximizing service to the poor. There has to be a balance,” Vaishnaw said.
  • Suggestions welcome to find the right balance: “That balance today is in a consultation process in the country. I request all of you to give your suggestions to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India. They will come up with the final document based on which government will take a decision. But the thought process is that we have to make it affordable,” the Minister added.

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