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Will India negotiate in cyberspace? Image from Alpha Stock Images, CC BY-SA 3.0

Will India negotiate in cyberspace?

From 10 to 12 November 2020, The Hague Program for Cyber Norms organized its third annual conference on cyber norms. Arindrajit Basu and Karthik Nachiappan are the winners of this year’s best paper award and introduce their winning paper in this blog post.

The missing digital decider

Multilateral and multi-stakeholder initiatives attempting to foster responsible state behaviour in cyberspace remain fragmented with normative divisions between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’. Despite being regarded as a ‘digital decider’ in cyber norms debates, India has largely refrained from adopting any cohesive and committed stance, opting instead for a strategy of silence and ambiguity. This stance sharply contrasts India’s positions on related digital issues like cross-border data flows, where India has been vocal in actively positioning itself as a flagbearer for ‘data sovereignty.’

Our research seeks to explain this divergence by unpacking how India has negotiated international rules in the recent past. India has often been regarded as a multilateral obstructionist, blocking or vetoing negotiations for international rules. However, recent empirical work (Nachiappan 2019) shows that such views are overstated. Looking at negotiations in different issue areas, India’s attitudes toward multilateral agreements hinge on the latter’s ability to advance national interests. Our new paper extends this approach to analyze India’s behaviour with respect to multilateral negotiations in cyberspace. By doing so, we also seek to evaluate how India might engage with fragmented cyber norms processes in the future. A summary of findings (Annex to the paper we submitted) can be found here.

India has often been regarded as a multilateral obstructionist, blocking or vetoing negotiations for international rules.

Has India Negotiated?

India deeply matters to global cyber discussions. As the world’s largest democracy with a large set of online users, India has leverage at multilateral cyber negotiations. Yet, as fragmented global debates on cyber norms have progressed, India has largely remained silent. Despite participating in five out of the six UN Group of Governmental Experts (GGE) processes to date, India is yet to publicly articulate its position on the outcomes or workings of these processes or make public their submissions to the UN Open Ended Working Group (OEWG). India refrained from signing the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace, championed by Microsoft, due to misgivings around norm entrepreneurship by a private actor and references made to the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, which India has consistently opposed.

India’s voting patterns and participation in coalitions such as the Global Partnership on Artificial intelligence (GPAI) further confound the lack of clarity. In November 2018, India voted for both the US-backed resolution which set up the sixth UN GGE and Russian-backed resolution that established the UN OEWG; since then, however, India has not participated effectively in either process underway at the UN First Committee.

Similarly, India has raised eyebrows by voting for a controversial Russian-backed resolution looking to negotiate an international convention against cybercrime at the UN Third Committee. This resolution and the proposed treaty has been criticised for facilitating government censorship of dissent. Voting patterns at the Third Committee were similar to the fissures brewing in the First Committee on cyber norms, and India’s votes at the Third Committee was interpreted by civil society globally as possible alignment with a Sino-Russian interpretation of the internet. Yet, in another confounding move, India also entered two democratic coalitions: the D10 that covers 5G and the Global Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (GPAI) comprising largely of G7 countries without China and Russia.

Can India’s inconsistent behaviour be explained by unpacking its interests? Despite clear economic and security interests in cyberspace, India does not view shaping the norms formulation debate as a means of furthering core interests. India’s strategy remains ambiguous: namely, to use negotiations to propel short term interests without accepting long term commitments or devoting excessive diplomatic resources. It has chosen instead, to focus on capacity-building and technical exchange through bilateral and plurilateral initiatives.

China’s increased participation at global technology fora might compel India to become assertive and clear about its cyberspace interests and priorities.

Will India Negotiate?

Will this passivity change? In the paper, we identify three key emerging trends, which may cause India to adopt an assertive stance in ongoing global cyber discussions.

First, the geopolitics around technology is changing with tech disputes and disruptions with China. Restrictions on Chinese technology and investments in India indicates that the Indian government has recognised the importance of the geo-political dimensions of technology. While India’s approach has been limited to restricting Chinese technology in India by citing Indian law and constitutional principles, it is clear these restrictions can only serve as a short term fix to a long-term threat from China. China’s increased participation at global technology fora might compel India to become assertive and clear about its cyberspace interests and priorities.

The second factor is the establishment of new domestic institutions last year tasked with conceiving India’s digital postures. The Defense Cyber Agency will be articulating a cyber doctrine. The Office of the National Cybersecurity Coordinator (NCSC) has already prepared an updated cybersecurity strategy that should be published soon. The New Emerging Strategic Technologies (NEST) Division in the Ministry of External Affairs might bring about institutional congruence to enable the adoption of a cohesive position on cyber diplomacy.

India’s strategy remains ambiguous: namely, to use negotiations to propel short term interests without accepting long term commitments.

Finally, civil society and academia are increasingly involved in discussions around the internet and digital technologies. Indian media closely covered the technological dimensions of the China conflict, playing significant role in public discourse. If however, civil society groups are not able to influence India’s positions at UN negotiations, institutional capacity within the government would need to step up and play a bigger role, carrying forward domestic interests.

It is in India’s strategic interest to shape global rules governing the internet to burnish its reputation globally as a responsible state in cyberspace and avoid taking rules created or led by other states. Given prevailing geopolitical fissures and uncertainty over the future of a rules-based order in cyberspace, other developing countries hope India will soon take a stand and play a constructive role - hopefully to further its rich constitutional ethos and democratic values.

The Hague Program for Cyber Norms is a research program based at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs at Leiden University. A selection of conference recordings, including the session where Arindrajit Basu and Karthik Nachiappan presented their paper, is available here.

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