In part one of this series, we explained why the G20 summit is a big deal—and why India’s Presidency this year could break new ground for tech policy.
Why it matters: India has said that it wants to be the “voice of the Global South” at this global economic forum. That means it wants the economic and national objectives of developing countries to be fairly represented in international treaties (which hasn’t always happened in the past). Or as Sharinee L. Jagtiani and David Hagebölling put it:
India’s “G-20 digital diplomacy is geared toward both linking and representing the Global South, with an aim to rally it around a wider developmental agenda that centers, among other items, on connectivity infrastructure, digital financial inclusion, and innovative health solutions.”
Reading outside the lines: Clearly, there’s a lot of granular tech policy work going on at the G20. But, zooming out helps identify what India’s larger priorities are as it leads the forum this year. We break down three larger policy planks that India’s been batting for at international fora like the G20—and how they align with domestic interests back home.
1. Using Public Data for Development
Starting from the top: During last year’s Independence Day address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had a fair bit to say on the role technology will play in India’s future. At a larger macro-scale, he signalled that Indian governance—and everyday life—would be fundamentally transformed by technology.
“The complete transformation of education eco-system, revolution in health infrastructure and improvement in quality of lifestyles of the citizens will be possible only through digitalization…In the last eight years, we have been successful in working for the betterment of the country by saving two lakh crore rupees which used to go into the wrong hands, using all the modern systems like Direct Benefit Transfer, Aadhaar and Mobile.”
But, there’s one key ingredient needed to build transformative digital systems for an entire country: a vast amount of public data. And that’s the plank that’s gotten a lot of visibility at the G20 under India’s Presidency.
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Enter, the rise of “data for development”: A solid chunk of India’s G20 tech policy focus since 2021 is “data for development”. In 2022, India’s Health Minister Mansukh Mandaviya illustrated what global norms on data for development could look like and achieve for the international health sector:
“A boost to digital health data systems to enable seamless interoperability of data and creation of longitudinal electronic health records within a country and at the global level is crucial,” said Mandaviya.
Public data discussions already underway: As we noted in part one of this series, different working groups discuss different thematic issues at the G20 ahead of the final summit in September. So far, there have been a fair few meetings on the use of public data.
At a meeting of the “Development Working Group” (DWG) in December last year, “delegates discussed the need for quality data and data with trust”. The same month India’s Minister of State for Electronics and Information Technology Rajeev Chandrasekhar added that countries should “work together to build a new international framework for technology, digital internet, and indeed data that mainstream the public good and Sustainable Development”.
Then in January this year, the first meeting of the “Global Partnership for Financial Inclusion” opened with a symposium on “Unlocking the potentials of Digital Public Infrastructure for advancing financial inclusion and productivity gains”. Last week, the government also set up the official task force for “Digital Public Infrastructure for Economic Transformation, Financial Inclusion and Development”. It’ll be co-chaired by India’s G20 sherpa, Amitabh Kant, and Nandan Nilekani. Remember: Nilekani was one of the architects of India’s Aadhaar program, which basically uses unique identification numbers to disburse public goods.
The inconvenient post-script: This is an example of India’s domestic interests (remember the Independence Day speech) and its international policy planks feeding off each other. This isn’t a bad plank either—data can be used to improve overall development outcomes and quality of life, as we’ve reported in the past.
But, outside of the rosy norm-based international arena, India’s domestic interests in gathering more and more public data are slightly more concerning. Data is being collected willy-nilly by government actors and fed into large databases. All of that is happening in the absence of a data privacy law—which means a lot of information can be collected on you for “development” purposes without you even knowing what it’s being used for. A new draft law makes it easier for the government to do that. This raises a red flag of non-stop surveillance by the Indian state, all for the ‘well-intentioned’ purpose of ‘development’.
So, what we’re concerned about: If this model gains more support internationally, does it legitimise privacy-free ‘data-driven development’ back home?
2. Fighting technology-enabled crime
The down low: It’s no secret that the Indian government isn’t fond of cryptocurrencies. It’s on the fence for a variety of reasons. Crypto is allegedly used to finance crime. It could destabilise the Indian rupee. The list goes on. To counter cryptocurrency’s popularity, the government rolled out a government-backed digital currency a few weeks ago.
Back to the summit: The G20 Finance Track—shepherded by India—may focus on figuring out international frameworks to regulate virtual digital assets (VDA) being used to money launder and finance terror. And India’s not doing a bad job at building consensus on this either so far. At the Ministry of Home Affairs’ ‘No Money for Terror’ conference last year, 93 countries committed to “end all financing of terror, including through the use of emerging technologies such as VDA.”
Translation: the cryptocurrency industry may have to brace itself for international frameworks that force it to operate transparently before governments.
This isn’t the first time India’s flagged technology-enabled crime: India’s been outspoken about the role of technology in perpetuating terrorism for a while now. Last year, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Counter-terrorism Committee adopted the “Delhi Declaration” after a series of meetings across India on technology-enabled terrorism. Member states pledged to issue non-binding guiding principles to counter “digital terrorism” globally.
India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar held that terrorists were increasingly leaning on money, technology, and “the ethos of open societies” to attack tolerance, freedom, and progress across the world. Social media platforms were particularly responsible for spreading destabilising propaganda, he added.
Not too far from domestic policy: India’s own domestic policies on social media regulation appear to increasingly clamp down on ‘inflammatory’ content online. Take the amendments to India’s platform regulation laws, the IT Rules, 2021. Last year, the government passed amendments that “cause” platforms to take down outlawed content on broadly defined security grounds, among others. A new proposal under the same Rules orders platforms to take down content fact-checked to be “false” by the Indian government’s press arm. Content labelled “false” by the government has included news articles that are critical of it. India’s enthusiasm for big datasets on its citizens also aligns with these security objectives—multiple ‘security‘ initiatives at home are being built using public data.
The signal: The signal is that India is serious about the security threats posed by technology—and might be trying to develop international consensus on these domestic interests through fora like the G20 and the United Nations. The privacy and surveillance concerns while maintaining national security remain the same. But, this isn’t the first time it’s attempted to nudge international fora towards respecting domestic security interests either. How can we forget the case of cross-border data flows?
3. Cross-border data flows with Indian characteristics
Some background: The Internet is most popular for connecting people around the world. For that to happen, data has to cross national borders and travel to other countries and back. In policy circles, this is referred to as “cross-border data flows”.
The international stance: This exchange of data is what allows us to roam and utilise the digital world. Because of that, it also fuels the global digital economy. That’s why it’s been a much-debated policy issue at international trade fora like the World Trade Organization (WTO). But, it’s increasingly become something that’s discussed at the G20 too. In 2019, some G20 members signed something called the Osaka Track. This was a framework sought to protect privacy, security, and copyright while ensuring the free flow of data across borders. The catch: India didn’t sign it.
What was wrong with the Osaka track?: Intuitively, the Osaka Track sounds like a good deal—you allow data to travel anywhere (keeping the Internet ‘open’), while ensuring its safety. But, that’s just one way of looking at cross-border data flows. India thought the G20 shouldn’t have been brought into the mix at all—because data is a form of trade, cross-border data flows should have been negotiated at the WTO. What’s more, a proposal like this hurts the development goals of growing countries like India, the government argued.
“In view of the huge digital divide among countries, there is a need for policy space for developing countries who still have to finalize laws around digital trade and data. Data is a potent tool for development and equitable access of data is a critical aspect for us,” said Minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal in 2020 while stating that India is not in a position to accept the concept of “Data Free Flow with Trust” [DFFT] G20 discussions.
What that means: India wanted (and perhaps still wants) more control over its data. As we saw earlier, it wants to be able to use it for ‘development’ that’ll hopefully spur its own economy. It wants to access it easily to solve its own cybercrime and security issues quicker. “India’s interest in jurisdiction issues and [cross-border data flows] is rooted in its inability to access data located elsewhere, as well as the inefficiencies with existing Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties [to share data between countries],” noted Sukanya Thapliyal of the Centre for Communication Governance at a MediaNama event last year.
This model appears in domestic policy too: India’s draft data privacy laws reflect these sentiments. Over the years, the government said that certain kinds of sensitive data had to be stored in India before they were transferred abroad—this is called ‘data localisation’. Data localisation makes it easier for the government to access data, because it’s already stored within India. Countries and companies criticised this approach, arguing that it raised barriers to the open Internet. India’s latest draft privacy law does away with these explicit data localisation policies. But, it also only allows cross-border data flows to certain countries whitelisted by the government. What that means, according to some: until a country is ticked by the government, all data has to be stored in India by default.
And what about the G20 under India?: Some think India’s been a bit too quiet on the issue so far. Last year, twelve civil society organisations wrote an open letter urging developing G20 countries to halt discussions promoting the free flow of data, “especially under the Presidency of India”. India and other developing countries had refused to buy into the free-flow discussions at the G20, the open letter recalled. The organisations pushed for a “rights-based digital governance international treaty instead,” we reported back then.
The bottom line: Remember, India wants to be a middle-ground and create space for developing countries’ interests at the G20. Similar to its own domestic policy line, it could push for free cross-border data flows with Indian characteristics. “As the G20 President, India is uniquely positioned to actually take the next step [globally] on data governance and cross-border flows simply because it has not opted into one narrative of how the Internet should be governed,” observed Arindrajit Basu of the Centre for Internet and Society at a MediaNama event last year. How India will achieve that at this summit remains to be seen.
As Antara Vats of the Observer Research Foundation notes, countries could “identify other priority sectors like law enforcement where DFFT is crucial and outline collaborative principles to facilitate it”.
Note: The headline was updated on February 1, 2023 at 3:20 PM to replace “under” with “during”
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