By Dr. Subi Chaturvedi
It has been an eventful year for Cyberspace across the world and in India. More than ever before the world has woken up to the threats, that lurk in the online world with increasing cyber attacks, threats, malwares, worms. Global governments have also been at the receiving end of phishing attacks and the most recent ransomware attempts, which have brought large corporations to a grinding halt have been launched by both state and non-state actors. Several global events have put the spotlight firmly on the need for enhancing cooperation amongst governments across the world. India hosted the Global Conference on Cyberspace late last month, from 23rd – 24thNovember, 2017. As another year draws to a close it is an important time to look back, reflect on, introspect within, and assimilate these learnings for better policy formulation in public interest.
There are over 7.5 billion people in the world today, out of which 3.9 billion are online, which is just a little over 51 %. Over three decades later, we have done rather well, as far as mobile connectivity and telephony are concerned but the story of the Internet is yet to be fully realized, with about half the world, still to be brought online. India is unique in many ways. We crossed the billion connections mark in mobile telephony last year but as far as the Internet is concerned, we are still a work in progress, with only 34% Internet penetration. Since the present government assumed office in 2014, many initiatives like the Digital India program, the Prime Minister’s Digital Literacy mission, Skill India, demonetization have contributed tremendously towards greater Internet adoption. A concerted effort has been made to move India towards a “less cash economy”, and the sheer volume of digital transactions has seen a three fold increase. The government announced the “DigiDhan Mission”, earlier this year to achieve a 25 billion digital transactions target, outlined in the Union budget for this fiscal year. Bringing more transactions online, is also an attempt to bring an end to corruption, and the black market economy. As governments adopt an open data approach, and open up the government, by bringing more departments and ministries online, systems and processes get strengthened. Prime Minister Modi, also launched the UMANG APP at the GCCS, which brings over 162 government services online for the ease of citizens.
Today, with over 460 million Internet users, India is the second largest online market, ranked only behind China. What is also unique about us is that, we have by far one of the largest numbers of users online but we also lead as far as the largest number of users, who are yet to be connected. Therefore the question of Access, and bringing the next billion users online, has to be, and ought to be the single biggest priority area for India and the world.Calling for not just an Internet Governance process but an Internet governance movement, instead.
Much has been written and said about the idea of the Internet and the perfect Internet. The Internet belongs to all the citizens of the world, to use, and learn from, to create and collaborate, to exchange ideas, start movements, to power a revolution and to articulate dissent. This is also why governments, globally, live in constant awe and fear of the net. Telecom has always grown in a structured, regulated environment. The Internet cannot and must not be regulated. There must be governance, light touch, at best but with less government. The net’s four core values are universality, interoperability, openness, and its ability to amplify and support human rights, which include the right to freedom of speech and expression. Vint Cerf, who is also known as the father of the Internet, has often talked about a fifth value, which is that of permission-less innovation. Which simply means the ability of innovators, nerds, geeks, citizens, you and me to be able to freely innovate and put those innovations online. Innovation, as we know takes place on the fringes and not at the core. Large corporations, once misunderstood this ability of the net, and construed it as a call for an IP free world, the two shouldn’t be confused. The engineers and developers have simultaneously contributed to the open source movement. And that is no mean feat. To be able to create, code, and give it to the world has often ended up making those products better, as they have benefitted from the contribution of colleagues and peers. But there is another kind of collaboration, which also exists in the online world; amongst hackers, and cybercriminals, which is much deeper, much more supportive, as the incentive and the reward at the end of each successful operation can sometimes run into millions of USDs. The deep web, allows for anonymous access to the net with high levels of encryption. These have been used often for committing cybercrimes, of an organized nature holding governments hostage globally. The clear net, which is accessible to all and has come to be synonymous with the Internet, has also becomes a governance challenge, and an easy tool for hacking the personal data of users, as well as accessing their financial accounts. The recent Uber disclosures are a case in point. Individual users, large corporations and citizens are at risk, in an increasingly global scenario where Digital is a way of life. The USA is still reeling from calls for investigations, and a possible Russian intervention, in its presidential elections, shaking a core democratic process to its core. News reports confirm that, at a meeting towards the end of October, the Russian Security Council has indeed, ordered its telecoms ministry to look at a, “system of backup DNS root name servers, independent of the control of ICANN, IANA and VeriSign, and capable of servicing the requests of users from the listed countries in the case of faults or targeted intervention”. This is akin to setting up its own parallel Internet. The Internet is one, and a universal, single, connected Internet is important of seamless economic growth, inclusion, diversity, multiplicity, openness, every value, which is at its core. A fragmented Internet allows governments to quell dissent and create walls, which allow them to filter, block and control content, at will. Democracies everywhere, which have withstood the previous attempt in 2012 to take Internet Governance to UN, led intergovernmental initiatives like the ITU have a real reason to worry.
Multilateral fora allow for governments to control and lead policy making, where binding treaties are signed and ratified with no recourse for citizens in their own country, and no voice for any other stakeholder group to meaningfully engage or contribute. Internet Governance refers to evolving policies and mechanisms, under which the Internet community’s many stakeholders make decisions about the development and use of the Internet. Loose, decentralized and community led and coordinated initiatives, which allow each stakeholder group including but not limited to only governments, to perform their rightful roles with a multi stakeholder approach, has worked for the internet. The need of the hour is policies, which drive Internet proliferation. The US has started the process of legally undoing its previous policy on Neutrality, through its regulator the FCC. The arguments are pretty clear, the ability of markets to regulate themselves, and crafta policy roadmap, towards the fulfillment of deeper rural broadband penetration.We don’t live in a perfect world and the Internet is far from perfect. There is no blanket- one- size- fits- all- solution. For a developing country and emerging economy like India and many others like us, driving Access is clear winner as far as policy priorities are concerned. A stable policy and regulatory framework, which drives innovation and investment, helps in accelerating the rollout of infrastructure, bridges the rural divide, and allows for new and innovative models for bringing the next billion online is what governments can meaningfully contribute towards. Not muzzle, regulate or impose artificial sanctions. All of this, also requires investments in the sector, especially in India. In the 90’s when it was first liberalized, both the sector and the consumers have benefitted tremendously from domestic and global investments of over 9 lakh crores. The sector is today reeling under a debt of over 4.5 lakh crores and requires and additional investment of over 3 lakh crores to be made immediately for India to be truly Digital and fully empowered. This also requires up skilling, with substantial investment in Digital literacy, Cyber security, research and development, policy literacy and awareness and advocacy.
Affordable access to data and devices has truly received a shot in the arm this year, with tariffs for voice and data hitting rock bottom, and increased convergence between the two. As a country, what we still need to work on, are laws, which are timely and updated and a create a legal as well a judicial establishment, which is conversant with the new ecosystem. There shouldn’t be chilling of speech or a creation of echo chambers; both are equally dangerous. Investment in law enforcement, new cyber cells with trained man power and officers are also required so that innocent citizens are not brought to harm either through legal or extra legal persecution. Gender divide is a real problem with women making only 2 % of the 460 million who’re online. Violent crimes, harassment and bullying consistently send many offline, severely limiting their experience and use of the Internet. Children are also equally vulnerable. The Blue Whale challenge has taken its toll in the country with many lives lost. Renewable energy and power along with the success of the Bharat net project will also benefit citizens tremendously especially in rural India. Over 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats, across 6,00,000 villages will soon be lit up through fibre and experience high, speed connectivity. Additionally we must also invest in creating local language content. The first brush of people in India with the Internet is usually through searches related to entertainment, or infotainment content. There are over 200,000 keypad literates, whose first brush with literacy is through the mobile phone. With the cost of devices coming down, an increase in smart phone penetration from its current 250million will also keep citizens online and just bring them online.
The most important driver for Internet adoption will still be e-services provided by the central and state governments. Speedy, 24X7 responsive governance, through more government departments cooperating with each other and seamless integration, with each other digitally, will impact more citizens, than any other app in India. Cybersecurity has truly emerged as a key concern area calling for a global convention where countries must unanimously come together and agree to not attack the core of the Internet. The Global Commission on Internet governance has also called for such an agreement and increased cooperation amongst nations. It has never been a better time than now, for India to take lead and broker global consensus, while ramping up domestic preparedness levels in Cybersecurity.
About the Author: Dr. Subi Chaturvedi
Dr. Subi Chaturvedi is a former member of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum MAG and holds a PhD from IIT- Delhi. She is a distinguished globally published author, public policy professional, noted columnist and commentator. Her regular interventions on Cybersecurity& emerging issues, Digital Diplomacy, Internet, Governance, Youth, Media, Technology, Policy and Digital Economy are widely acknowledged. [email protected]