This interview was conducted by Mirko Hohmann and Joel Sandhu for the 'Global Governance Futures 2025' program, which brings together young professionals to look ahead and recommend ways to address global challenges.
GGF: Parminder, you are working on e-governance for the Indian government. What are the opportunities and risks that arise from e-governance in India?
PS: I am working on the implementation of the Aadhaar (Unique ID) project, probably the most important e-governance initiative of the Indian government, one that has the potential to change the governance landscape in India in the near future. In addition, the Indian government has come up with the “Digital India Initiative” with the aim of transforming the country into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. An important component of this initiative is to provide every citizen of India with access to high-speed Internet.
The potential of e-governance in India is huge. Long gone are the times when governments worked on standalone computers. Today we have web portals that access remote databases through cloud services to serve people online. In fact, the concept of governance is soon going to change from e-governance to i-governance, where “i” will connote words like “internet-based,” “individualized” and “integrated services.” It might even be possible for governments to provide subsidies without creating any market imperfections, as, in such cases, they will not be required to provide subsidized goods for lower than market price. Instead, a government will ask beneficiaries to purchase goods at market price and will then transfer the amount of subsidy directly into the bank accounts of the beneficiary.
Imagine people in villages with access to banking facilities at their doorsteps, made possible by using point-of-sale terminals or normal android-based devices that act as micro-ATMs and replace the traditional brick-and-mortar bank branches. Imagine the Indian government managing its public services for individuals, families, villages, districts or states across the country with the click of a button. Aadhaar has the potential to usher in a near-perfect inter- and intra-departmental coordination that would serve as the basis for an ideal financial and resource planning exercise.
Aadhaar has the potential to transform the way people interact with the government. The platform could become the main economic and governance institution of India, and it could transform the service delivery and financial inclusion landscape in our country.
Such opportunities certainly bear risks as well, particularly in regards to privacy, security and misuse of personal data. Also, we lack basic human capacities for leading such a huge data-driven change as government bureaucracies are full of red tape. In addition, there would be issues related to last-mile Internet access and affordability, which may delay such a transformation.
GGF: India is the world’s third-largest Internet user, after the United States and China, yet millions of people in India are still not connected to the Internet. What can India contribute to the discussion on global Internet governance?
PS: We are well aware that the Internet is a game changer, and the Indian government has come up with the “Digital India Initiative”, through which all villages will be connected by fiber-optic cables so that the government can reach out to those unconnected millions and thereby usher in new possibilities of socioeconomic development. Even with millions of Indians unconnected, we remain the third-largest nation in terms of Internet users. Think about the role of the world’s largest democracy when those untapped millions finally get connected.
In regards to global Internet governance: Until recently, there have been many contradictions within the official Indian stance at various discussion forums. Our foreign ministry was treading the traditional multilateral line, while other ministries, under the pressure of civil society organizations and business interests, toed the multistakeholder line. Now, I believe, the official Indian stance supports the multistakeholder model.
Internationally, India, as a representative of the Global South, should bring the problems of digital divide – such as capacity building, access and inclusion – to the agenda of global Internet governance. Allegedly, most of the research in information and communications technology has been done with business interests of commercial organizations in mind, or from sociocultural perspectives of developed democratic nations. The work on powerless, unprivileged stakeholders from the Global South is still missing, and India should take a lead on that.
Locally, though, India has already taken steps for its transition into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy, even though we do not yet have a clearly spelled out legal and technical framework for such issues. India needs to come out with clear legislations and rules of the game that are related to issues of privacy, data security, content regulation, e-commerce and other important subjects.
GGF: What is your perspective on the role of the private sector in shaping rules and regulations online?
PS: Online content creation, tagging and sharing are a relatively new phenomenon. In the absence of legal frameworks to deal with such issues, private sector players are shaping the rules and regulations. But I am convinced that governments, civil society and research organizations should also have a say in this.
A normal citizen leaves countless digital trails while using the Internet, and technology corporations can easily peep on her location, relationships, actions and even financial transactions. No one seems to be safe in this networked world, given the ease with which private technology corporations can access an individual’s personal information. In fact, these issues of privacy and security are limited not only to citizens. Even governments are insecure in present-day cyberspace. WikiLeaks posted so much of its classified information about the internal affairs of different states, that it created a Cold War–like situation in diplomatic circles.
Going beyond the arguments of privacy, data security and sovereign equality, some civil society organizations like Just Net Coalition have expressed their concerns about the unequal allocation of benefits to Western nations, particularly the US, through the current set of Internet governance structures dominated by private multinational corporations. They allege that presently, the major US telecom powers, along with e-commerce and social networking companies in the US, are illegally benefiting from the growth of the Internet. Their claim is that the current multistakeholder model gives big businesses an institutionalized role in the promotion of monopolies, and big Internet companies are leveraging the network effect and economies of scale to kill competition and to promote their own products and ideologies.
GGF: Some countries, such as Russia and China, argue that governments should play a stronger role in global Internet governance, while European countries and the US advocate for the so-called multistakeholder approach. Where do you stand on this issue?
PS: To my mind, global Internet governance structures should necessarily represent the growth of cyberspace. Today’s governance arrangements evolved over a period of time in accordance with the needs of this unique network of networks. The Internet originally started as an academic exercise. Governance arrangements grew organically over time, as demanded by the technical and developmental requirements of the network. For each and every necessity, new standards and stakeholders were added, and Internet governance evolved into the multistakeholder model we see today.
Countries that support the multilateral model, like China and Russia, cite the “principal of sovereign equality of states” to question the legality of the special role usurped by the US government in order to control critical Internet resources. Such demands intensified following incidents like the Snowden disclosures and the WikiLeaks revelations. Even some heads of governments in Europe suggested creating their own “Schengen” network or cloud to process and store their data inside of their respective geographical boundaries.
This is undoubtedly a political challenge, for which countries will have to sit together to resolve the basic contradictions between the two competing models of Internet governance. I personally favor the multistakeholder model, which, in fact, has been accepted by most of the governments in the Tunis Agenda and the NETmundial meeting. But the question still remains about its further improvement. How can the multistakeholder model be molded so that it involves other stakeholders in its search for pragmatic solutions to Internet-related public policy issues?
In fact, the idea of “globalizing” the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has the potential to win over many countries to the multistakeholder model. Yet, many countries from the “Global South” would be interested in the transparency of the entire process, particularly regarding the procedures of electing or nominating ICANN’s board of governors, their accountability in reporting on various issues and the Government Advisory Committee’s role in the “globalized” ICANN.
Parminder Pal Singh Sandhu is the joint secretary at the Department of Food of the Government of Punjab. He was a Global Governance Futures 2025 fellow in the Internet governance working group. The views expressed are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, the organization to which he belongs.