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Democratising Technology for the Next Six Billion: India’s ‘Digital Public Goods’ Innovation

Beginning in early 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic—and the lockdowns implemented by governments across the world as a response—accelerated emerging trends of digitalisation, mobile and internet penetration, and technology adoption. In 2000, barely 413 million people were internet users; today, that number exceeds 4.9 billion. Social media was almost unheard of at the turn of the century; at the time of writing this brief, 4.5 billion people were active users. With key services such as education and health, relief delivery, government communications, and citizens’ transactions like bill payments being increasingly disseminated digitally in many countries, techno-citizenship has become an inevitable attribute of the future.

Establishing universal access to the internet, digital platforms, and other vital technology has become a necessity in every economy. Accordingly, there is a need to make digital rights sacrosanct and inviolable: among them, data privacy, personal safety, security, and self-determination via opt-in consent loops. Yet, access to and development of digital platforms and technologies is a necessity not only for the individual; rather, as the principle of techno-sovereignty dictates, it is essential for national security. Countries must build a technological moat to secure their citizens’ interests. The events over 2020 and 2021—the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its global economic fallout, set against a backdrop of multiple border disputes, technology disputes, and a flight to innovation—bring up a fundamental question: How should states democratise the development of technology and ensure digital equity and protection for all?

The process of democratising the development and access to vital technologies must be sustainably undertaken, much in the same manner that public goods or commons are built for society. Leaving it in the hands of private companies like Google or Facebook brings myriad risks, both known and unknown—these include digital monopolisation, monetisation of private data, and financial and privacy losses due to international security breaches with no recourse to local laws. At the same time, overreliance on other states, such as China, for technology development has negative consequences, primarily national security risks. Instead, digital commons must be developed and deployed as a “shared [national] resource in which each stakeholder has an equal interest.”

A democratised digital commons has the following foundational attributes:

  1. Universal and equitable access at scale, with no community left behind.

  2. Active policy of inclusion with a built-in philosophy to reduce costs and friction.

  3. Sacrosanct rights like privacy (right to private digital communications with encryption), personal safety and security (protection from leaks and abuse of personal data), self-determination (to opt-out of terms and conditions, to control and consent to the use of one’s data, portability), and not to be profiled (to opt-out of automated profiling and bulk surveillance).

  4. Recourse to the law: In case digital rights have been abused, one needs recourse to the law. This is only possible if a citizen’s data is within the same borders where they are a citizen or resident. Data localisation and sovereignty is invariably the only way to provide every citizen rightful recourse to the law.

  5. Supports continuous innovation: The nature of technology’s rapid evolution necessitates continuous updates and innovation. Interoperability is also essential for digital commons to serve as platforms that can support new systems being built on top of them.

India is one of the few large economies that has built digital public goods (DPG) or commons at scale, with the potential to incorporate these five necessary attributes in a practical manner, to benefit its citizens.


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