Can India help build a confederation of digital democracies?

It was after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 that the United States and the Soviet Union decided to set up a hotline between them. The firs...

It was after the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1961 that the United States and the Soviet Union decided to set up a hotline between them. The first official use of this hotline was to inform the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics about the assassination of John F Kennedy.

There had once been resistance to the use of new technology, like tele-wire services, and telephones in the interaction of nations, but as conflicts grew, and their triggers, more rapid, the adoption of technology was inevitable — a hotline was critical lest a misunderstanding cause triggering of the hot (meaning nuclear) button.

Inaugurating The Sydney Dialogue, the summit for emerging, critical and cyber technologies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The digital age is reshaping international competition, power and leadership. It has ushered in opportunities for progress and prosperity. But, we also face new risks and new forms of conflicts across diverse threats from sea-bed to cyber to space. Technology has become a major instrument of global competition... shaping the world order… Technology and data are the new weapons. The biggest strength of a democracy is openness. But we should not allow vested interests to misuse this openness.”

Echoes of this emerged from Hillary Clinton, the former US presidential nominee and secretary of state, who, speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, said about cryptocurrencies, “What looks like a very interesting and exotic effort... has the potential for undermining currencies, for undermining the role of the dollars as reserve currencies, for destabilising nations… There’s a whole new layer of activity that could be extremely destabilizing or, in the wrong hands or in alliances with the wrong people, could be direct threats to many of our nation states and certainly to the global currency markets.”

These statements are a recognition that digital technologies are changing in some fundamental ways the very nature of the global order, and its mechanisms. Mass media technologies have always had an impact on politics. For instance, radio and television-led mass media left its indelible mark on democratic processes including creating the need for telegenic leaders who could develop personal followings rather than just policy support.

But there is a recognition that digital technologies have gone well beyond such limited impact, and now are able to decide electoral fortunes through, among other techniques, social media manipulation and targeted data mining.

This is not all, of course; digital technologies are strengthening democratic processes as seen in the deployment of direct welfare payments in India which has eliminated old and persistent problems like local level graft. Digital architectures enabled billions of rupees worth assistance to the vulnerable during the worst phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Countries were barely able to grapple with the idea of social media giants in America being used to influence democratic processes in other countries, when the issue of cryptocurrencies changing the very nature of monetary transactions and the financial architecture that undergirds the global economy has appeared.

If China bans all American social media networks, Ecuador has become the first country to roll out its own digital cash, and El Salvador is the first to have approved bitcoin as legal tender.

All this is set to spread and will change the contours of the global engagement. Therefore, it is urgent that a new collaboration is created which builds methods and mechanisms through which digitisation could be embraced and its excessed curbed.
What is needed, as Modi suggested, is not just a coalition of democracies, but a collaboration of digital democracies who work to make digitisation a force for good and simultaneously have the legislative power to curb its ills.

There is a recognition here that, like terrorism, or the drug trade, this cannot be done by one country alone. It needs cooperation and collaboration between like-minded countries.

The world will, sooner than later, have to face up to the fact that in the digital world, some countries use nefarious means more than others, cyberattacks originate more from some countries than others, and the cyber spying as a tool is used mostly by some, more than others.

Perhaps more than other tools, digital technology can be used on a daily basis to damage democracy, and therefore there is a need for countries who commit to using it equitably and for just means to coalesce together.

Modi and Clinton’s comments could help the Indo-Pacific develop such a vision – of a coalition of countries that pledge to the fair and democratic use of digital technology and promote its use for welfare, rather than warfare.

India benefits from such a coalition, as do the United States and Australia, are some of the biggest users of digital technology and with vast digital resources which they can effectively deploy.
This might be the moment to declare such intention and build such a coalition.

The writer is a multiple award-winning historian and author. The views expressed are personal.

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Can India help build a confederation of digital democracies?
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