Harnessing Digital India to the Debate on Universal, Secure Access to Information

India needs to steer international policy discussions at the World Summit on Information Society review to align with its domestic policy priorities

Places to connect. Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Fickr CC 2.0

Places to connect. Credit: Steve Jurvetson/Fickr CC 2.0

In a meeting at the UN last week, India highlighted the need for strong cybersecurity measures to protect development initiatives like Digital India during a session that saw intense discussions on emerging cyber threats. These discussions occupied centre stage at the Preparatory Meeting for the 10-year review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in New York.

Linking security issues to Digital India was interesting and helped the country make the case for security issues in the WSIS Review. However, we missed a trick by not pitching Digital India as a means of linking the WSIS process with the implementation of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While India made a welcome call for a new funding mechanism to fund development activities through Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), the Digital India pivot might prove crucial going forward in these negotiations.

As the review enters the home stretch – the high level meeting which concludes the WSIS Review is scheduled for December – it affords us an opportunity to examine where it is headed.

Launched in 2005, with the Tunis Agenda, the WSIS process sought to create a “people-centred, inclusive and development-oriented Information Society”. Ten years on, the question of whether such lofty aims have been achieved evokes different reactions from developed and developing countries.

ICTs have transformed the world we live in dramatically over the past decade but the benefits of this transformation have not been distributed uniformly. Different levels of access to the internet and ICTs have created what is known as the “digital divide”. The digital divide is often a manifestation of existing socio-economic inequalities in society. But the migration of services (such as education, health and e-governance) online can exacerbate these divisions to further marginalise traditionally marginalised sections.

Linking the endorsed SDGs to the WSIS process to enable development through ICTs has been mooted as a means of bridging the divide. But doubts remain over how such a programme can be funded on a global scale with developed and developing countries unable to come to an agreement. An existing global fund called the Digital Solidarity Fund has not gotten off the ground in 10 years and the US, the EU and others are reticent to commit to another global funding agency. India and other developing countries are instead calling for a new financial mechanism that moves beyond bilateral funding and official development assistance.


Another transformation that has occurred in the Information Society over the past 10 years has been the ostensible increase in cyberattacks and the use of the internet by terrorists and other violent groups. Increasing cyberattacks from Chinese hackers against India and the US has alarmed states which fear these  seemingly invisible threats to their sovereignty.

Unsurprisingly, cybersecurity was a hot button issue that dominated discussions on the last day of the New York meeting. Developing countries, awake to the possibilities of cyber threats are pushing for a separate text on cyber security, emphasising the role of governments. Some major developed countries like the UK are instead insisting on text that recognises the role of other stakeholders like the private sector in protecting sovereign security interests. The participation of stakeholders apart from the government is not uncommon in the Internet governance sphere. However, the involvement of private sector corporations in matters of national security issues is still controversial. Given their profit making motives, entrusting corporations with the management of critical internet resources that have a bearing on individual and collective security has attracted criticism from civil society groups.

It is in this context that India highlighted the necessity of security to promote development programmes like Digital India which takes ICT enabled services to remote parts of the country. In support of this proposition, the Indian delegation also called for the creation of an intergovernmental forum to facilitate discussions on cybersecurity and public policy issues. They have been supported in their calls by other developing countries like South Africa and the G-77, who see this as a useful way for technical cooperation and to build the capacity of governments to deal with cybersecurity threats. Whether this comes to fruition remains to be seen, but consultations on security measures before governments resort to brash measures like network shutdowns is always welcome.

Digital India in the WSIS space

There is no disagreement on the idea that development initiatives need to be supported by a secure environment. But there is also a need to take a broader view of development related issues. The question of human rights, equitable access to the internet and ICTs, and building the capacity of marginalised groups to effectively use the internet should be infused in discussions around using ICTs for development. India alluded to this at the meeting by its position as a multicultural, open democracy with unique developmental challenges. Pointing to the potential for exponential growth in the domestic ICT sector in in the next 10 years, it called for regular high level reviews to assess the impact this has on the Information Society.

India’s position as a diverse country with unique challenges also means it can occupy a unique space in these negotiations. India is neither on the side of developed countries who are calling for the deletion – or at least the downplaying of – security issues, nor on the side of countries taking a hard-line’ national sovereignty’ stance, demanding, for instance, the removal of human rights references from the outcome document. Countries like the US and the EU belong to the former category while Russia and China are united in their opposition to human rights text. Taking a non-aligned stance on these issues means that India has the opportunity to facilitate discussions and broker compromises on many  hot button issues. Instead of taking a back seat on the more controversial issues where it doesn’t have a position, India can lead the negotiations to meaningful outcomes.

This gives India the chance to steer international policy discussions to align with its domestic policy priorities. For instance, there is already momentum to link the WSIS outcomes with the SDGs. Digital India, the government’s flagship initiative is exactly the sort of broad-based programme that has the potential to realise the linking of these two global platforms. Digital India’s stated aim of creating digital infrastructure for every citizen as a means of empowerment is very similar to the WSIS vision. If this means connecting the roughly 700 million people without internet access, it will be a huge step forward in fulfilling the SDGs.

Clearly, India has enough leverage to influence outcomes in the WSIS review. If we do manage to pilot the negotiations to fulfil our priorities of a global funding mechanism, a secure information society, universal access and capacity building while promoting respect for human rights, it will go some way in securing our digital future over the next decade.

Puneeth Nagaraj is a Senior Fellow with the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi