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Business News/ Opinion / Views/  Digital public infrastructure ought to girdle the globe

Digital public infrastructure ought to girdle the globe

Clarify the doubts other countries may have for India’s DPI model to be embraced across the world

A bilateral commitment to implement Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) like India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) got lost in the breathless media coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s State visit to the US. Premium
A bilateral commitment to implement Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) like India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) got lost in the breathless media coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s State visit to the US.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s State visit to the US saw major commercial announcements such as Micron’s commitment to establish a semiconductor plant in India, a deal to acquire 31 Predator drones from General Atomics, and an agreement between Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and General Electric to make jet engines for Tejas fighters. A bilateral commitment to implement Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI) like India’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) got lost in the breathless media coverage. Part of a June 2022 joint statement, it has the potential to set a new template for public-private digital partnerships,

Historically, the public sector has funded physical infrastructure such as road and rail networks, especially in developing countries. However, public-private collaboration for modern connectivity infrastructure is now the norm. In India, the public sector has less than a 10% share in India’s telecom and internet infrastructure. Similarly, there are many infra-like elements of online apps that also require a public-private interface. These include specifications of protocols and standards that enable different parties to interact and work on common platforms. With institutional backing, they can help provision ‘foundational’ or ‘public’ digital infrastructure.

India has several DPI set-ups other than UPI. Aadhaar, for example, is a digital identity system. Account aggregators like CAMSfinserv and Protean that manage user consent for financial data operate on the Data Empowerment and Protection Architecture (DEPA), which is a government-prescribed framework which “empowers people to seamlessly and securely access their data and share it with third party institutions." India’s desire to share its DPI experience has catapulted these to the global stage and is part of its G20 presidency agenda.

However, several G20 countries are sceptical of DPI and for good reason. They have little clarity on what these are and whether they should replicate them. An open discussion on the merits and potential pitfalls of DPI would help. For instance, there is merit in the argument that DPI can break down problems like digital exclusion into constituent parts and mirror the entrepreneurial process of solving hard problems. The UPI exemplifies this. It was a response to the non-existence of fast retail payments, where India has gone from laggard to leader within a short span. DPI can reduce market entry barriers and pave the way for the emergence of new industries. Therefore, they enable competition when done right. PhonePe, Google Pay and PayTM which account for over 95% of all UPI transactions are an example. These apps have leveraged UPI’s open architecture and provided users with a service quality that guarantees high adoption rates.

DPI set-ups are also inclusive by design. Civil society stakeholders play a key role in their development. For instance, the ‘Modular Open-Source Identity Platform’ (MOSIP), a brainchild of researchers earlier associated with Aadhaar, provides an open-source architecture to establish identity systems. MOSIP is housed within the International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore, and funded by multiple philanthropic organizations. Several countries including Burkina Faso and Madagascar have signed up with MOSIP to design and deploy population-scale identity schemes.

However, new infrastructural paradigms always engender doubt, particularly when public interest is cited. This is why the Indo-US Joint Statement reflects a bilateral commitment to “protect privacy, data security and intellectual property (IP)" in DPI implementation.

To unpack privacy and data security concerns, consider the case of consent managers, intermediaries who collect approval from website and app users to harvest and process their personal data. They can even allow users to revoke their consent. This model not only gives agency to users, it also places commensurate responsibility on intermediaries to not leak data or allow unauthorized third-party surveillance. Consent-takers also need a home. If they reside within private firms that operate in the same digital market segment where their brokers collect consent, it inevitably engenders conflicts of interest.

Similarly, all digital advertising relies on targeting users based on personal and non-personal data collected via websites and apps. India, like the US, has robust IP protections and is a signatory to the World Trade Organization’s Trade-Related Aspects of IP Rights, which states that compilations of data, in a machine-readable format, can be protected as intellectual creations based on their selection or arrangement. In other words, if a business exercises non-trivial skill and creativity in compiling and organizing a database, it can claim copyright protection of it. The US gives additional legal protections to trade secrets. These can comprise publicly available information, some combination of which can be claimed to provide a competitive advantage if kept secret.

G20 presidencies from 2016 onwards have stressed the importance of digital technologies and their role in inclusive and sustainable economic development. Frankly, much of this has been lip service without any tangible results. India’s willingness to co-conceptualize the principles that inform DPI adoption is thus encouraging. Our strategic and commercial partnership with the US should provide an ideal environment to promote DPI-led development globally.

These are the authors’ personal views.

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Published: 01 Aug 2023, 09:58 PM IST
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