The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has prompted the Union government to articulate a new vision for internet governance in India. It believes that the key pillar of any such framework must be aatmanirbharta (self-reliance).
Some commentators have termed it a protectionist attitude towards technology governance. Our view is the exact opposite. We believe initiatives such as the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme and the emphasis on using only trusted supply chains for the tech sector demonstrate the globalisation-oriented attitude of the government.
The call for an aatmanirbhar internet stems from concerns about the ability of technology firms to manipulate public debates. The misinformation pandemic has been acknowledged by India’s political class, cutting across party lines. Last month, Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoke in Parliament about how tech companies were interfering in India’s democratic processes. In February, Ashwini Vaishnaw, the minister for electronics, and information technology (MeitY) told the Rajya Sabha that the government was willing to frame even stricter rules for social media companies.
India must not confuse the objective with the means. We must aim to ensure that both the sanctity of our electoral processes and plural public discourse are preserved. Building rigid walls will only make our defences prone to collapse in the digital age.
It is a well-established convention that the marketplace of ideas flourishes when competing propositions clash with each other. Multiple points of view enrich public discourse and ensure that no single entity becomes an arbiter of right or wrong. In short, the smaller such a marketplace is, the higher the risk to democratic principles. Take India’s policy towards foreign direct investment (FDI) in the broadcast news media. As it stands, the FDI policy makes it near impossible for international organisations to invest in TV news. At the same time, you have a broken TV news ecosystem, that is homegrown, where some channels peddle fake news, gimmickry, and partisan agendas instead of elevating public discourse. Not a single Indian news channel has global influence.
There are two other lessons to be learnt from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. First, India can and should use its homegrown technology companies as instruments of influence in digital societies, just like the US has. Soon after the current conflict broke out, the US government imposed sanctions on Russia to blunt its economic might. Tech giants such as Apple, Google, Twitter, and Meta took this as a cue to impose sanctions of their own. Meta prevented Russian State media outlets RT and Sputnik from running ads on its platforms. Google removed Russian State-organisations from its news-related features and the Google News search tool. Apple stopped the sale of its products and Twitter paused ad sales in Russia. Would we not want Indian companies to reflect and strengthen our interests abroad?
Second, self-reliance will yield minimal positive outcomes if it cannot be used to create both a sphere of influence and a circle of economic resilience when a country needs it the most. North Korea is a prime example. It is self-reliant but has no constructive influence on world affairs, and is always on the brink of disaster. India must avoid walking down that path by learning from the evolution of its globalised Information Technology (IT) industry. Just as foreign tech majors look to India for growth, our IT industry derives strength from access to advanced markets. In this case, the time-tested principle of reciprocity represents an equilibrium that we needn’t disturb.
Like it is doing with hardware, India needs trusted supply chains in digital communications and software. It must learn to work with technology companies from the West. The government should facilitate a partnership among the State, domestic companies, and international technology firms. And, India can leverage initiatives such as Quad to build safe digital corridors through which it can engage with, harness and eventually lead global markets and societies.
Vivan Sharan and Aayush Soni are tech policy experts at Koan Advisory Group, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal