A new architecture of social power and control is getting built with its

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USI Library
News Information Service
Hindu/6-6-2015
Opinion
Who rules cyberspace?
PARMINDER JEET SINGH
A new architecture of social power and control is getting built with its core in the U.S.
India should work through the BRICS group to develop an alternative to this Internet
hegemony
The Internet evokes a deep dilemma of whether ‘to govern or not’. Few things work as well as the
Internet does: it’s always on, always obliging, and consists of endless possibilities, routinely
conjuring wonders that we have not dreamt of. On the other hand, it is difficult not to be troubled by
how the Internet is everywhere, but without any clear means of accountability and political reaction
to how much it is changing around us. But without sufficient clarity regarding the nature of the
problems and the required solutions, mere general political scepticism cannot hold a candle to the
populist governmental-hands-off-the-Internet sentiment. The latter is expectedly strongest among
the richer classes, who trust the devices of the market to get the Internet to do their bidding. Other
than routine knee-jerk reactions over people freely expressing themselves on the Internet, which
could threaten various kinds of power elites, while also sometimes causing genuine security and
cultural concerns, there exists no serious political conceptions around the Internet in India today,
much less its appropriate governance in public interest.
This state of affairs is quite detrimental to society as the Internet is becoming closely associated with
social power and control in almost all areas. It has become like a global neural system running
through and transforming all social sectors. Whoever has control over this neural network begins to
wield unprecedented power — economic, political, social and cultural. Two elements of this emerging
system are the connectivity architecture and the continuous bits of information generated by each
and every micro activity of our increasingly digitised existence — what is generally known as Big
Data. Even a superficial scan of how the triple phenomenon of digitisation, networking and
datafication is occurring in every area will suggest the nature of consolidation of power in the hands
of anyone who can control these two elements.
Every sector is impacted
Take the agriculture sector for example. Monsanto is now increasingly a Big Data company, as it
holds almost field-wise micro information on climate, soil type, neighbourhood agri-patterns, and so
on. Such data will form the backbone of even its traditional agri-offerings. It is easy to understand
how data control-based lock-ins are going to be even more powerful and monopolistic than the
traditional dependencies in this sector. Recently, John Deere, the world’s largest agricultural
machinery maker, told the U.S. Copyright Office that farmers don’t own their tractors. Because
computer code runs through modern tractors, farmers receive “an implied license for the life of the
vehicle to operate the vehicle”. There is a pattern of end-to-end informational controls.
Similar developments are occurring in every other sector. Policymaking and governance are
becoming dangerously dependent on Big Data, even as the public sector is all but giving up its
traditional responsibilities for public statistics. The state is increasingly dependent on data collected
and controlled by a few global corporations. Data companies such as Google are entering verticals
like automobile and health in a manner that is threatening the traditional players in these sectors.
Doctors subscribing to medical information networks carrying patient data, disease demographics,
pharma information, and so on could soon become but appendages of the network. The network they
think right now is a mere support may become the primary agent in the relationship. Such is the
power of the network, vis-a-vis its peripheral users. Network and data providers in the education
sector sell their services in the name of personalised offerings for every student, and every context.
Schools with resources may find them alluring, but then they merely add to the power of the
monopolistic networks, at the expense of their peripheral users. As their power consolidates, so do
the terms of engagements mutate in the favour of the network controllers.
Here we have deliberately used examples of power shifts across whole sectors induced by digital
networks. On the individual-use front, it is perhaps even easier to see the kind of social power
exercised by those who can at will alter the algorithms of Facebook and Google, which increasingly
provide us the logic and pattern of our social relationships and of means of accessing information
and opinion making.
All this should set us thinking about who really controls the digital connectivity patterns and Big
Data. In this regard, one can speak of a global unipolar networked-digital complex, with its elements
of political and commercial power, both overwhelmingly concentrated in the U.S..
We are therefore witness to a phenomenon which is of extreme social importance, spanning all
sectors of society. And the powerful levers of control of this phenomenon almost entirely lie in an
eco-political domain over which the Indian society or state has no control, and very limited
influence. This should be a public policy nightmare. However, you would not suspect it if you were
watching the political discourse in India, not only inside the government but also outside. One comes
across periodic discussions on freedom of expression issues, while the state, and some civil society
actors, have begun to show heightened security-related anxieties. But one hears nothing about the
overall new architecture of social power and control that is getting built, with its core in the U.S. It
implicates very significant long-term economic, political, social and cultural issues that should
greatly concern a country like India. Even freedom of expression and security are significantly
related to this new power architecture.
Governments are traditionally slow on the take with regard to such rapidly moving phenomena,
however socially important they might be. Civil society engagement in this area is dominated by
middle class interests, whereby markets tend to be considered as essentially benign. Their major
struggle is against the excesses of the state, the Internet no doubt being a significant new arena for
such excesses. This has resulted in serious blind-spots regarding the larger architectural issues about
the global Internet, with far-reaching economic, social and cultural implications. It is urgently
required to undertake a systematic examination of these issues, situating them in the geo-political
and geo-economic logics that overwhelmingly drive them. Appropriate domestic and foreign policies
have to be developed within such a larger understanding.
India’s geopolitical options
Even for a country of India’s stature, it is not easy to play the geo-political game on its own, and
certainly not in an area viewed by the dominant actors as among the most crucial for establishing
global political and economic domination. No quarters will be given here, as has been clear from the
pronounced non-activity in the limited UN-based global forums dealing with Internet governance
issues. This, therefore, is not a field for the faint-hearted; it requires strong real politik approaches.
The only option left for India is to go with the strong nations that are similarly placed with respect to
U.S.’s digital hegemony. Although this is one area where the EU countries are almost as much the
victims as other countries, it is unlikely that they will break their geo-political alliance with the U.S.
any time soon. They would either keep suffering silently, or seek solutions at the bilateral level with
the U.S., and through strengthening EU level regulation. Just last month, the economic ministers of
Germany and France sought a “general regulatory framework for ‘essential digital platforms’” at the
EU level.
India should work through the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) to
develop an alternative to the U.S.-based global unipolar networked-digital complex. This may be the
only viable path right now. It could be difficult for BRICS to work together on issues involving civil
and political rights, for which reason the cooperation could focus on economic issues. The global
architecture of the Internet today is mostly determined by its geo-economic underpinnings.
Going beyond the typical one-off treatment of Internet and big data issues, BRICS must begun to see
them in a larger geo-systemic framework. The last BRICS summit gave a resounding response to the
global financial hegemonies by setting up a New Development Bank, and an alternative reserve
currency system. The next BRICS summit in Ufa, Russia, in July 2015 should come up with a similar
systemic response to the U.S.-centred Internet. This can be achieved by pulling together a strong
framework for BRICS cooperation on digital economy. That would be the biggest game changer with
respect to what is now a complete stalemate over global governance of the Internet.
(Parminder Jeet Singh works with the Bengaluru-based NGO, IT for Change. He has been an
advisor to the Chair of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum. Email:
[email protected])
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