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14 February 2019, Gateway House

Challenges in global digital cooperation

Participants in a recent discussion on digital issues, hosted by Gateway House, brought to the fore some universal concerns about trust, tech imperialism and the militarisation of cyberspace

Researcher, International Security and Manager, Management Office, Gateway House

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The digital world thrives on data and data sharing. As data sharing proliferates trust issues have emerged. Trust – or the lack of it – was among the major themes of discussion at a Roundtable on ‘Global Digital Cooperation’, hosted by Gateway House. The participants were: delegates from the UNSG High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation, experts from financial institutions, security establishments and private industries, and Gateway House Fellows.

Trust underpins digital technology, but the experts said it was absent in governments, businesses and citizens, the key stakeholders. They therefore felt it was necessary to replicate experiences from the non-digital sphere to the digital, such as incorporating privacy protection measures in any data sharing framework. The Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) of India is a prime example of how data pertaining to millions of customers is stored securely, thereby creating a sense of trust among customers.

The members of the UNSG panel, led by its Executive Director, Ambassador Amandeep Gill Singh, also had Dr. Cathy Mulligan from the Imperial College Centre for Cryptocurrency Research and Isabel de Sola, Senior Adviser, accompanying them. This panel, established in July 2018 by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, is chaired by Jack Ma and Melinda Gates. Its goal is to strengthen digital cooperation across borders and subject domains.  The team, which has already visited China, France, Germany and several other countries, is focusing on digital technologies, and their impact on social issues related to human rights, equality, the future of the social contract, safety and security.

Speakers at the Roundtable also brought up issues to do with digital imperialism and data localisation, and the weaponisation of cyberspace.  They pointed out that the rise of tech imperialism is a major challenge to the world’s digital order and how the Internet and its governance, which is the backbone of digital infrastructure, is not yet completely democratic despite implementation of the multi-stake holder model of governance at  the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers  (I-CANN),  a non-profit organisation. Proper regulatory mechanisms can help make Internet governance impartial. Currently, technology giants possess more data on citizens than the states themselves, which is an unprecedented situation. Some of the participants pointed out that the need to promote data localisation also assumes importance to safeguard data sovereignty and prevent digital imperialism.

The weaponisation or militarisation of cyberspace, both by state and non-state actors, is another threat that all stakeholders face, a concern that the experts voiced. The Petya ransomware cyber attacks in June 2017 had affected the functioning of the Nava Sheva port in Mumbai though India was not a primary target.

The discussion also provided the opportunity to highlight India’s experiments in the digital sphere, chief among them being IndiaStack, a set of APIs that allows governments, businesses, startups and developers to utilise a unique digital infrastructure for virtual, paperless and cashless public service delivery. The fintech revolution, sparked by IndiaStack, has facilitated financial inclusion in India. The delegates noted that this initiative can be replicated in other emerging economies.

Another notable experiment is India’s Goods and Services Tax Network (GSTN), which acts as a central repository of tax-related data and transactions: speakers pointed out to the UN officials the potential of such a data warehouse to increase the scope of data-driven decision-making.

Based on these discussions, Gateway House made an official submission to the UNSG panel, which will bring out a final report by mid-2019.

Sagnik Chakraborty is Researcher, International Security Studies, Gateway House.

Please click here to read the official submission made by Gateway House to the UNSG panel.

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