Centre for Internet & Society
Digital native: Look before you (digitally) leap

The role of the digital as infrastructure has been a boon for many developing countries.

Creating a digital future is great, but there’s a serious need to secure the infrastructure first.

The article was published in the Indian Express on May 28, 2017.

Digital technologies of connectivity have one unrelenting promise — they offer us new ways of doing things, augmenting existing practices, amplifying capacities and affording new possibilities of information and data transactions that accelerate the ways in which we live. This idea of the internet as infrastructure is central to India’s transition into an information technologies future.

Nandan Nilekani, almost a decade ago, in his book, Imagining India, had clearly charted how the digital is the basis for shaping the future of our communities, societies and governance. As one of the architects of Aadhaar, Nilekani had argued that the country of the 21st century will have to be one that seriously invests in the digital infrastructure.

In 10 short years, we have reached a point where we no longer question the enormous investment we make in digital systems of governance and functioning, and we appreciate the economic and networked values of projects like #DigitalIndia and #MakeInIndia that shape our markets and cities into becoming the new cyber-hubs.

There is no denying that digital offers a new way of consolidating a country as polyphonic, multicultural, expansive and diverse as India. We also have to appreciate that, even if selectively, the digitisation of public records, government services, and state support is clearly producing an administrative momentum that is reforming various practices of corruption and incompetence in the massive state machinery. The role of the digital as infrastructure has been a boon for many developing countries.

This positioning, however, masks the fact that infrastructure needs its own support and care systems. Take roads, for example. Roads allow for connectivity, movement and mobility between different spaces. They are one of the most important of state and public infrastructures and for all our jokes about pot-holes and eroding spaces for pedestrians, roads remain the life-line of our everyday life. A complex mechanism of planning, regulation and maintenance needs to be put into place in order to make roads survive.

The amount of attention we pay to roads — the material quality, the land that it occupies, the lanes for different vehicles, the traffic lights and zebra crossings, blockages and streamlines, authorising specific use of roads and disallowing certain activities to happen there — is staggering. A public planner would tell you that before the road comes into being, the idea of the road has to be formulated. The road needs protection and planning and its own infrastructure of support and creation.

When it comes to the information superhighway of the digital web, this remains forgotten. We are so focused on the digital as infrastructure that we seem to pay no attention to its infrastructure. Thus, when we proposed, deployed and now enforced a project like Aadhaar, the focus remained on its unfolding and its operations. Aadhaar as an aspiration of governance has its values and has the capacity to become a system that augments statecraft.

However, the infrastructure that is needed to make Aadhaar possible — rules and regulations around privacy, bills and acts about data sharing and ownership, contexts of informed consent and engagement, community awareness and data security protocol — have been missing from the debates. For years now, activists have been advising and warning the state that building this digital infrastructure without building the contexts within which they make sense is not just irresponsible, but downright dangerous.

Different governments have turned a deaf ear to these protests. Now, when the Aadhaar portals are found disclosing massive volumes of public data, making people vulnerable to data and identity theft and fraud, we are realising the massive projects we have started without thinking about the context of security.

With the ongoing controversies around #AadhaarLeaks, the question is not whether the disclosure of this information was a leak, a breach or an ignorant exposure of sensitive information. The response to it cannot be just about fixing the infrastructure and building more robust systems. The question that we need to confront is how do we stop thinking of the internet as infrastructure and start focusing on the infrastructure that needs to be set into place so that these digital systems promise safety, security, and protection for the lives they intersect with.

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