Accelerating Bharat's Digital Agenda

Accelerating Bharat's Digital Agenda is about addressing two critical divides -- the digital divide in meaningful access, and the development divide in the data paradigm

1. The access divides

India is rapidly digitalising but there is a risk of leaving Bharat behind. India had over 700 million active internet users as of December 2022, according to Nielsen’s India Internet Report 2023. There is still significant potential for growth in rural markets, as nearly half of the rural population is not actively using the internet. A mere 25% of adult Indian women own a smartphone, in contrast to 41% of men. Given our strong policy focus on the girl child and women’s empowerment – digital inclusion of women must also be seen as a vital axis for an inclusion that is empowering -

Empowering in a way that enables connectivity undoubtedly, but also equality of opportunity for all and access to public services, esp for the marginalised. Empowerment also comes from accountabilility of institutions.

So that the Internet becomes an enabler of rights and a gateway to full participation in society

The incomplete project of NOFN/Bharat Broadband and last mile access provision must be completed. Public access points can be reimagined as Maker spaces – hubs where young people learn all about tech that is ethical and responsible. A new era of digital libraries in the grassroots is needed – combining the learnings from our CSC program with enskillment and enterprise development opportunities. Involving civil society in this will be a wonderful public-community partnership model

Empowering access is not possible without digital rights.

IT Act overhaul that is being proposed is welcome – and here we need to move from giving primacy to a commercial approach to a citizen-centric approach - Marco Civil of Brazil a good example to emulate.

2. The development divide in the data paradigm

Countries need the policy space to pursue their growth

a. India has championed this position – and has an opportunity to demonstrate a unique model of data governance emphazising development, people's control over data resources, public value creation of data etc. We are seeing new developments in the WTO today on data flows and new multilateral deliberation in the UN on the Global Digital Compact where we should take on strategic leadership to situate developing country standpoints firmly in this debate.

In the national context, Clause 16 of the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 permits cross-border data flows to other countries except if they are on a blacklist. While there may be some merit to the ambition that the political leadership rightly have for India’s global competitiveness in the data markets – as a country, we may still need to revisit this.

A rights-based approach to data governance is needed that includes privacy and autonomy, but also the social and democratic rights to determine if, and under what conditions, people’s data will flow. Getting policies ready for this through a democratic deliberation process is needed to encourage both public policy and collective data stewardship mechanisms for this. The arrangement and orchestration of social ownership of data and public institutional mechanisms for data governance is like all public policy – it is a science and it is an art so that we challenge the extractivist and colonial data paradigm

b. We need our wonderful federal structure – from villages to cities, states and the centre to have a mutually productive and accountable platform society design, with public infrastructure, backbones, protocols and citizen commons to unleash a productive dynamic.

c. As much as we need to bring our perspectives into the global arena, we also must carefully watch and learn from legal-policy initiatives in the world. Common data spaces of the EU - Agstack, health, urban data stack – all of these need to be governed to ensure they do not become spaces where open government data sets, other public data, data in people’s custody are just cannibalised by bad actors and locked up. The AI economy needs a creative public policy approach, with right of all to data accessibility (individuals, small businesses, research institutions, altruistic organizations, worker-led platforms etc with differentiated responsibilities, obligations and privileges) which is based on a strong ethical, rights-based code. From a monetization approach, data stacks need to shift to a public value approach – this will make the platformised internet a space that is truly inclusive. We need to have multistakeholder views – esp from citizens – for how high priority data sets in various public policy held by private actors can be made available as a matter of public interest and how mechanisms .

d. AI regulation - where transparency, accountability and public scrutiny in AI development and deployment becomes the norm.

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