The digital revolution has sparked a geo-economic battle. Some countries, industries, and companies are poised to reap the benefits of the revolution, while others are set to sustain major losses, and the distribution of global power will alter as the cards are reshuffled. Market logic continues to govern on this battlefield, from the struggle between regulators and tax-smart global companies, to the fight put up by entire economic sectors and professions that are in danger of disappearing.
The major powers now appreciate the significance of the internet as a site of geopolitical competition, collaboration, and confrontation. Envisaged by its libertarian developers as existing outside politics and working for the benefit of all, the internet is now steeped in politics of the most traditional kind. These struggles are being waged across a number of fronts: from intellectual property theft to distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks, and from weaponised viruses to demands to establish a global regulatory body for the internet.
We are engaged in a new “Great Game” – a phrase first used to describe the intense rivalry in the nineteenth century between the Russian and British Empires for control of Asia, and generally applied today to describe the geopolitical manoeuvrings of nations or regions in pursuit of power and influence in a certain area. Today, the Great Game is digital.
The Game has Begun
The US has been similarly savvy in applying geopolitical logic to the digital domain to further its strategic objectives. It has defined its digital infrastructure as a “strategic national asset”, doubled the budget of the National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence body since 2001, and quadrupled in two years the personnel assigned to its new US Cyber Command, now standing at somewhere between 3,000 and 4,000 cyber soldiers. The very architecture of the internet is shaped by US ideology and interests. As the place where the internet was built out of a desire to construct a communication network resilient enough to survive nuclear attack, and now the home of some of the most powerful and wealthy technology companies on the planet, it has long been the dominant power online, and its political and business culture, as well as its emphasis on free speech, have formed the governing ideology of the internet.
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Compared to the US, China is more focused on establishing a state-centric model of internet governance while using the internet to project itself internationally. President Xi Jinping has taken direct control of digital policy with the aim of shifting China from being a “large internet country” to a “strong internet country”, with greater national control over the internet and more active foreign engagement. The Chinese government is increasingly dominant in international debates about internet governance, deploying soft power initiatives like the World Internet Conference to bolster its push for internet sovereignty rather than the open multi-stakeholder approach advocated by the West. These moves are explained not only by fears of an unbridled internet, but also by China’s wider aim of taking an active role in shaping and establishing international rules.
As for Russia, it is also concerned with securing control over the global architecture of the internet to further its domestic and foreign policy. On the national level, the Kremlin seeks to impose “Westphalian” principles over the internet – i.e. based on traditional principles of national sovereignty; while on the international level it employs the internet as a foreign policy tool for asymmetric digital activities. In May 2014, Russia announced the creation of its rather revealingly named “information troops”, employed to fight these digital wars. Russia, meanwhile, has a lower dependency on information systems than the West, due to its focus on information security, which has afforded it greater protection from cyber threats.
Other examples of how the digital revolution is disrupting politics abound in the Middle East and India. It is widely recognised that the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor whose protest helped spark the Arab uprisings, would not have had such a rapid and massive effect if the youth in these countries had not had access to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media that allowed protesters to organise and share videos and information. Similar is the case with India where a massive fake news industry has sprung up exercising influence over traditional discourse of politics and has a potential in becoming a security challenge like the Arab Spring if not kept in check.
Challenges for India
The international rules governing the internet have yet to be fixed, and the process of doing so provides high risk of conflict. Currently, the US-based Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) oversees global IP address allocation and other technicalities for the functioning of the internet. Much of the international community sees US monopoly on IANA functions as undemocratic, and there have been widespread calls for this to be transferred to a more representative body. The transition to a multi-stakeholder international framework is currently underway but there are fears that truly international internet governance could be dysfunctional, unable to reach consensus due to lack of leadership, or dominated by countries that do not support freedom of speech.
Cyber-security threats and revelations about the extent of surveillance by the US government abroad pose another danger for both internet openness and transatlantic relations. There is a risk that the mistrust arising from this surveillance and hacking of telecommunications could lead governments and the public to push for a more protectionist and closed internet.
Change the Rules
Power has been redefined in the digital era and India should be well poised to obtain it. As Moisés Naím observed in his recent book, The End of Power, “in the 21st century, power is easier to get, harder to use – and easier to lose”. Recent developments, he argues, are undermining traditional sources of power, now vulnerable to attacks from smaller actors. This is particularly evident in cyber warfare, for example, where offence is much easier and cheaper than defence. It is likely that soft power will greatly gain in importance in this new era, with the ability to persuade and attract more significant than the ability to attack or control. This provides fertile ground for India to excel, given its traditional strength in exercising and deploying influence via soft methods.
Digital power is now the underpinning of all soft power, both as an environment and a set of capacities, and so India must focus on setting the rules of the digital game. It needs to develop its own vision of how it sees the internet developing as a free, open, and secure medium – one that supports Indian values of democracy and human rights. It must stand for an open, multilateral, rules-based governance system, and fight attempts to privatise the internet. A look at how China, Russia, and other actors use the internet to promote their values and interests makes it palpably clear that the internet is the place where the great ideological battles of our time will be won and lost: India must not lag behind.
The new Great Game has begun, but its players are still playing by the old rules. India should not attempt to compete on the basis of Great Game geopolitics or geo-economics. What it can do is play by a whole new set of rules defined by a twenty-first century vision, far removed from the territorial conflicts of the past.