Expert Speak Digital Frontiers
Published on Apr 03, 2021
Bits and Bytes: Creating an Agile Governance Framework for the Future

Technological disruptions in the digital age provide both a challenge to existing governance frameworks and structures, as well as an opportunity for improving the efficiency and reach of governments in providing essential services for the upliftment of their citizens. At the core of an “agile governance framework” are issues of access; namely, access to quality basic services for all and transparency in the provision of these services. Accordingly, governments, private actors and civil society must tackle different aspects of the following questions: How do we ensure that the benefits of the digital revolution accrue to everyone equally? How do we prepare for any unexpected socio-economic consequences?

Proponents of the Digital Revolution believe that it has far more potential for inclusivity than any other revolution before it. Digital technologies have empowered historically socio-culturally disadvantaged groups by amplifying their voices and enabling change at the grassroots. In South Asia, for instance, as Ankhi Das highlighted, these technologies have helped combat the oppression of women by becoming a tool for them to assert their agency. These technologies also alleviate a key challenge in transparent governance: information asymmetry. As Carl Bildt pointed out, “Even in remote areas of Afghanistan, the youth are connected to the world through their mobile phones.”

At the same time, issues such as the absence of digital literacy and the proliferation of tools that enable criminal activity and harassment are pressing challenges to the openness, safety, and fair use of new technologies. To address these challenges, there is a need for efforts at the local, national and international level. For platforms like Facebook, for example, closing fake accounts is the first step that they can take to combat misinformation and harassment as authentic accounts tend not to engage in “inauthentic” behaviours. Furthermore, Scott Carpenter highlighted the importance of moonshot organisations, like Jigsaw, being housed within technology companies to predict and address ways in which the platforms can be misused. Finally, at the most basic level, the promotion of initiatives that generate local-language content and applications for natural language processing would ensure the creation of a truly inclusive digital ecosystem.

At the national and international level, panellists pointed to the cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder model as the most optimal means of crafting norms and regulations in the digital space. Such an approach is crucial in striking a balance between market and private sector-led reforms, on one hand, and government regulation on the other. From the private sector perspective, Scott Carpenter stated that the internet is an ecosystem and that it us up to companies to keep that ecosystem clean so that users do not feel like they are unsafe. Meanwhile, from a government perspective, Rajiv Kumar stressed that government responsibility in the digital age lies primarily in providing infrastructure and an enabling environment for emerging technologies. A healthy policy ecosystem is crucial as well for entrepreneurship and a future-ready workforce. As Carl Bildt correctly points out, “talent thrives in open societies”.

Nowhere is the necessity of a balance between regulation and openness more evident than in debates around privacy in the digital age. In search of frameworks for privacy online, many countries are looking to the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a model. Yet, as Catherine Mulligan stated, the GDPR model ended up creating disproportionately high costs of compliance for smaller firms and may end up having a dampening effect on Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprise (MSME) growth. Thus, it is crucial to adopt a flexible privacy regime that protects both users and data entrepreneurs. In this vein, Rajiv Kumar suggested differential privacy — collecting aggregated information as opposed to information tagged with demographic or biometric markers that can compromise an individual — as a way of balancing individual privacy and the need for data.

The sheer scale and impact of developments in the digital sphere means that it cannot be left at the behest of laissez-faire. At the same time, however, we must avoid the trappings of over-regulation lest we kill the medium and all its promise.


This essay originally appeared in Raisina Dialogue Conference Report 2019
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