Why India should strive for control over its data, internet

vpn guidelines violate data privacy norms
The VPN guidelines in the current form go against the spirit of the provisions of the Data Protection Bill which is yet to become law.

By NK Mathur

Does India have sovereign control on internet over its soil? Has it mastered all electronic communications that travel over its geographical domain? The answer is a big NO, despite the fact that the Indian Telegraph Act stipulates that the Union government shall have exclusive privilege of establishing, maintaining and working communications within India.

The International Telecommunication Regulations also mention that each country shall have sovereign right to regulate its telecommunications. However, internet is a global network without a central governing body, encompassing many countries and autonomous networks, each setting and enforcing its own policies and therefore should be looked at carefully. The government must be conscious of the fact that all data travels via the internet.

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Data is the new oil

The world’s most valuable resource today is data. Mathematician Clive Humby expressed this belief as early in 2006 when he said, “Data is the new oil.” Data fuels the modern economies; big Datatech companies are among the wealthiest corporates. Unlike oil which is a limited resource, data is unlimited and keeps growing. Data can be collected and used in detail or in a cursory manner.

Data is not limited by geographical constraints. It is accessible to anyone in any corner of the globe. Moreover, data can be reused any number of times as there is no apparent degradation. It can, in fact, be enhanced and updated keeping it current and more useable.

Once the relevant data, as decided by an individual or an organisation, is collected, it remains somewhat free from biases. Bias sets in while choosing which elements would be included. The same data set could be analysed in several different styles depending on the purpose of the organisation that uses it. It is becoming more and more specialised every day.

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Global bodies governing internet, data

In view of the multi-jurisdictional nature of the internet and data, the United Nations (UN) convened Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to discuss multi-stakeholder public policy issues related to the key elements of internet governance. However, no final consensus could emerge. Another key decision maker in the field of internet is the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialised agency for information and communication technologies (ICT).

In addition to 193 member states, ITU membership includes ICT regulators, and over 700 private companies and leading academic institutions. The ITU continues to play an active and constructive role in the development of internet, despite no general agreement in its multilateral mode. The dissenting nations have been advocating for a multi-stakeholder model that seeks to bring all stakeholders, including governments and private sector, together to participate in decision making.

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Regulating internet

The US government still controls the internet despite its abdication of the responsibility in September 2016. India should seek a larger role in the control functions. Mere location of root servers in India – or other select countries – would not serve any purpose unless they are allowed a role in control and management. With its geo-political status, it should be a member on the controlling body.

The Indian government has favoured a multi-stakeholder model, wherein the government would be represented in decision-making forums, but shall undertake consultations at national level with stakeholders to formulate the country’s position. It appears that governmental discussions related to internet governance have been, in the past, side-tracked by vested interests in the name of multi-stakeholder consultations. Today, this term is sought to comprise some unrepresentative groups supported by vested interests.

Almost all international organisations started on multilateral model. Later, they come under pressure to convert into multi-stakeholder style. Intelsat and Inmarsat are examples which are formally multilateral, but in practice they have become multi-stakeholder in concept.

The present position is that India has apparently lost control on electronic communications over its territory — the present international regime of internet governance having been entrusted to international multi-stake holder system. However, some other nations have adopted measures that enable exercise of such regulatory control with regard to domestic traffic.

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Possible modes of controlling internet

From sovereignty and geopolitical considerations, it would be desirable that India acquires effective control on electronic communications including internet over its territory – which appears technologically feasible. Such control on communications is the national prerogative even in peace-time, when it embraces all walks of nation’s life, and can certainly not be compromised due to its strategic importance in times of emergency. Hence to safeguard national interest at all times, certain policy measures need to be adopted.

Here, it should also be recognised that a major portion of communications is not only voice, but in data form for which the world utilises the internet, a packet data network, deploying open system interconnection. However, with Internet governance having been entrusted to a multi-stakeholder body, India has perhaps compromised the sovereignty aspect enshrined in our Act and in the international regulations. Incidentally, there is also no effective representation of India in the body which controls the vital activities in this area – the International Consortium for Assignment of Names and Numbers (ICANN).

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Possible global structures for internet, data governance

What should be the structure of each nation’s representation in the governing body based on a multi-stakeholder model may now be addressed. Fundamentally, the government of each country is the representative body and must have the final say. The government representative — preferably at ministerial level – should be assisted by a few designated representatives selected from the industry, academia, civil society, and policymakers. This should constitute a country’s delegation.

Fundamentally, the civil society primarily means the citizen rather than such structured groups which might have vested interests. Decision-making must be on fast-track: three to six weeks decision time depending on the type of issue. The basic objective in decision making should be the benefit of the people at large. The state’s stand on an issue should be determined on the basis of broad consensus. The voting strength in the multi-stakeholder body could be in proportion of the population of each country, possibly one vote per million with a maximum of 10 and, of course, with a minimum of one vote.

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The organisation itself needs to be located in a rather neutral country like Switzerland, New Zealand or Singapore. India should also take into account the possibility that certain powerful countries might work out some arrangement that meets their concerns and could thereafter be forced upon other countries as fait accompli. Therefore, it is of paramount importance to take care of India’s concerns in whatever international regime for Internet governance is in place.

Let us not overlook the fact that India’s NRI data could be a coveted resource and all efforts must be made towards its control. India is formulating a privacy law which includes data localisation provisions. However, this alone could be inadequate regulation and would fall short of requirement for capitalising on the benefits data can offer. India has large amounts of data to offer and can become a leader in the field with the help of soft regulation, offering maximum benefits to humanity. Also, this would be an important step to realise the dream of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

(NK Mathur is a former civil servant. Views expressed in this article are personal.)