[bestbits] Who rules cyberspace?

Guru Guru at ITforChange.net
Sun Jun 7 13:13:09 EDT 2015

An op-ed by Parminder in Hindu, a leading Indian daily highlighting 
structural geo-political and geo-economics issues of IG, and the need 
for new alignments that can disrupt the increasingly more powerful and 
more uni-polar networked-digital complex centred in the US.


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 

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 

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 

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 

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:parminder at itforchange.net)

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