Multilateral cooperation will be the cornerstone of internet economy

Economic Times, August 13, 2020

By Pradeep S. Mehta and Abhishek Kumar

Globalisation has had its hey days since 1980s. In 2008, the financial crisis sent a rude reminder that all was not well with how people lived and worked. A decade later trade war between world’s two largest economies brought down the euphoria that the world is an ever-integrating global village. The shrinkage in trust and stability, in and among nations, has affected all possible interactions, including internet. It is time to take a closer look and find solutions so that civilisations continue evolving to generate prosperity through multilateral cooperation.

Alas, today, policies driven by national interest are on the rise world over. Global trade appears to be the obvious casualty but tensions between countries have transcended those boundaries. An apt testimony is that internet, which is the only window to the world, too appears fragmented like never before.

Countries are vying to control the cyberspace with their own rules. This is antithetical to the very nature of internet. Unlike land or maritime issues, where countries can establish sovereignty by drawing borders, the internet is a virtual entity, like air or germs, which is not only agnostic to territorial boundaries but also subverts them. People across countries and socio-economic status progressively use it for commerce, communication and accessing public and private services.

In other words, internet can no longer be seen as a mere addendum to citizen and consumer well-being. It has come to define the consumer and citizen in the new age. Covid-19 has only accentuated the need to have unencumbered internet. In its wake, even national and international forums are organising dialogues virtually.

Countries must realise that it is a gateway for communications, knowledge and innovation. Therefore, it is critical for enterprise growth, jobs and livelihood as well. It is not as if efforts for common governance framework have not been made. One may recall that Japan had proposed the Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) vision, part of the Osaka Track, that aims to craft rules for digital trade. The Track’s ultimate aim is that countries come together to help facilitate the free flow of data.

Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Prime Minister, first espoused the idea of a DFFT during the World Economic Forum’s Annual General Meeting in January 2019. That vision, he said, stood on two pillars: the need to secure personal, intellectual and national security data, and to ensure the free flow of data, within and across borders, that fuels economic prosperity.

Unfortunately, there was no support for this idea because India, South Africa and Indonesia chose to boycott it. The three countries believed that the it went against the WTO principles to arrive at consensus-based decisions. However, a closer look at the internet governance practices of these emerging economies reveals other reasons.

In June 2020, India banned 59 Chinese apps in the interest of “national security”. It also sent the maximum takedown requests to technology companies in 2019. In the same year, South Africa passed the Films and Publications Amendment Bill that gives sweeping powers to its Film and Publication Board, to ban “any message or communication, (including visual presentations) placed on any distributed network including, but not limited to, the Internet”.

In Indonesia, authorities restricted access to social media platforms in the run-up to the April 2019 general elections, according to a Freedom House Report. It added that “critics of the government, most notably journalists and members or supporters of the LBGT+ community, continued to face criminal charges and harassment in retaliation for their online activity”.

One would think that countries like India, South Africa and Indonesia, on whom the weight of a colonial past hung so heavily, would do everything to preserve the freedom of their consumer and citizens – online or offline. Mandela, Gandhi and Sukarno led movements that liberated their countrymen (and women) from the shackles of restrictions. Mandela famously said “For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

Today, as India struggles to get its economy back from the clutches of pandemic, it also needs to reform its capacity to extend full benefits to the people in the hinterland. No more can we rely on just handful of economically active clusters. Livelihood opportunities need to spread out horizontally. In pre-Covid times more than 60% of GDP came from just six states. Just imagine, what will happen if all states were to partake in building new India.

Internet will be a key facilitator in that pursuit. Therefore, the agenda to build a free, fair, safe and unencumbered internet is a question of national interest. This national interest can be best served when countries move away from ad-hocism to more rule-based internet governance.

We don’t need to witness anymore the high price of unilateralism on people raring to express themselves in the life of an economy. Most people, much like most countries, move forward with aspirations. Stability and trust should replace provincialism and punishment as the cornerstone of a new digital global governance framework.

(Pradeep S. Mehta is the Secretary General of CUTS International. Abhishek Kumar is the Founding Director of Indicc Associates, a public interest firm and also serves as Honorary Advisor to CUTS International)


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