Rule Makers

We have, for most of our existence as a nation, accepted the governance frameworks that have already been implemented elsewhere in the world. With digital public infrastructure India is, perhaps for the first time, making the rules. It is time for us to stop being rule-takers and assume the role of rule-makers.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

When it was first introduced as one of the key priorities of our G20 presidency, even its most messianic votaries could not have imagined how warmly the world would embrace India’s digital public infrastructure (DPI) approach. At the time, it was widely believed that DPI was unique to India, and that no other country without its particular combination of technical expertise and massive scale could ever hope to build efficient digital infrastructure that could perform the same way. Yet, in less than a year, the alacrity with which nations of the world have taken to this philosophy has been a joy to behold.

Global Acceptance

Amid all this rapid progress, there has never been a fortnight quite like the last one. In the space of just two short weeks, India’s DPI approach received ringing endorsements from three significant global organisations, indicating in no uncertain terms the level of global acceptance of this model as a viable new approach to data governance.

The first of these statements came from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an eight-member political, economic, and security alliance that voted unanimously to adopt India’s proposal on DPI—agreeing to assess, evaluate and adopt this modular, interoperable approach to digital inclusion to the extent possible. This was followed by an announcement at the EU Trade and Technology Council (TTC) where India and the European Union agreed to take steps to accelerate the development and deployment of DPI in other countries in an effort to build open, inclusive digital economies and societies around the world. Finally, at the Quad leaders’ meeting held on the sidelines of the G7 meeting in Tokyo, the joint statement formally recognised the transformative power of DPI in supporting sustainable development and delivering economic and social benefits to the people of the Indo-Pacific.

Individually, each of these statements, would have been unthinkable even a year ago. Taken together, they are a strong indication of the growing level of seriousness with which the world has begun to engage with India’s DPI approach, acknowledging all that it has to offer and the urgent need  to incorporate these ideas into the global narrative.

But why now? What is it about this particular point in time that has resulted in the idea of digital public infrastructure capturing the world’s imagination in this way?

Two Extremes

In the first place, DPI offers a powerful alternative to many of the challenges that countries—big and small—have been trying to fix with little success. Today, most of our digital services are delivered to us by large technology companies that have the ability to control exactly how we access them. As we have seen, this has lead to various unhappy outcomes as the commercial interests that drive these entities come in the way of citizen-centric outcomes.

If we don’t entrust these digital services to private hands, the only other model that is currently available is to leave it all to the government. This is how digital services are delivered to people in China—either directly by the government or through private companies so directly under government control as to effectively be agents of the state. This has negative consequences of its own, resulting in a level of state surveillance that is unacceptable to most democratic nations.

Tech. Markets. Governance

India’s DPI approach uniquely juxtaposes technology, markets and governance to allow countries the flexibility of having population-scale digital ecosystems that are under their control while still leveraging the power of markets and private enterprise to promote inclusive and competitive services for their citizens. This is precisely what developing nations need to leapfrog traditional stages of their development journey, significantly accelerating the benefits that only digital transformation can bring.

Many multilateral institutions have already committed considerable sums of money to digital transformation projects in developing economies—digital identity projects, fast payments solutions and government-to-people transfer systems. Most of these funds find their way into the hands of IT vendors—large private sector enterprises who build massive monolithic solutions that are not interoperable with any other digital system in the country. Not only does this leave the country at the mercy of the vendor who supplied them the system, it denies them necessary sovereign control over critical government services.

By adopting the DPI model, countries can design fully interoperable solutions that meet their specific national requirements using secure, privacy-preserving solutions that have been seen to work at population scale. They can make sure that the systems they build remain under their control with full freedom to adjust the protocols that underpin their operation in a manner that suits their specific national objectives.

Rule Takers No More

For our entire existence as a nation, our laws, regulations and national strategic imperatives have had to conform to the way the rest of the world operates. Most recently, this manifest itself in the pressure we came under to adopt EU’s GDPR approach to data protection, even though some of us believed a less prescriptive approach might have been more appropriate.

With widespread acceptance of India’s DPI approach as an appropriate alternative to address the many challenges of the digital world, perhaps we can, finally, be the rule-makers instead of the rule-takers.