As world leaders gathered for the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan this past weekend, a multitude of issues from climate to trade to technology came to the fore.
Much of the focus was on U.S.-China interactions at the summit, as the two nations are locked in both a trade war and broader technological and geopolitical competition. Despite the present focus on the U.S. and China, however, it is crucial to not overlook another bilateral relationship of ever-growing importance in the process: The tech relationship between the United States and India.
Certainly, the two countries have many disagreements on some technology issues. But this is a geopolitical relationship that is both strategically important for each country, and a vital opportunity for the two largest democracies in the world to collectively combat Chinese-style digital authoritarianism.
Huawei and 5G
First, with respect to national security and 5G roll-outs, the U.S and India are not on the same page. The United States, for several months now, has been on a diplomatic messaging tour of the world to try to convince — with great resistance (some would argue failure) — allies, partners, and potential partners alike to ban Chinese firm Huawei from supplying components of 5G networks. Many officials across Europe, the Middle East, South America, and elsewhere have been reluctant to ban Huawei per the U.S. recommendation, and India is no exception. Indeed, National Security Advisory Board Chairman P.S. Raghavan told The Hindu that “5G is becoming a fault line in the technology cold war between world powers” and that India must avoid getting caught in these fault lines.
In large part, U.S. diplomatic messaging here has fallen short due to heavy conflations of national security- and trade-related risks; and Trump only contributed further to this fact with his latest reference to Huawei, during the G-20, as a potential trade war bargaining chip. The sheer population of India, however, combined with its fast growing technology sectors and desire to digitize, makes the country an important market player when it comes to the 5G revolution. U.S.-India engagement on 5G issues must be managed effectively through robust articulation of each country’s national interests underscored by a clean segregation of trade and security questions in the discussion. This partnership has the potential to wield great influence in the global market, including in ways that could prioritize or deprioritize certain 5G equipment suppliers (like Huawei).
Data Sovereignty and Data Privacy
Data sovereignty is another hot area in which the U.S.-India tech relationship demands careful negotiation. Over the past year, the Indian government has introduced a range of policy instruments which dictate that certain kinds of data must be stored in servers located physically within India — termed “data localization.” While there are a number of policy objectives this gambit ostensibly seeks to serve, the two which stand out are (1) the presently cumbersome process for Indian law enforcement agencies to access data stored in the U.S. during criminal investigations, and (2) extractive economic models used by U.S. companies operating in India.
A range of conflicting developments emerging from the G-20 summit underscore this fact. India, along with the BRICS grouping, focused on the development dimensions of data governance and re-emphasized the need for data sovereignty — broadly understood as the sovereign right of nations to govern data in their national interest for the welfare of their citizens. President Trump reigned in his focus on the need for cross-border data flows and, in direct opposition to some proposals that have emerged from India, explicitly opposed data localization. While India did not sign the Osaka Declaration on the Digital Economy that promoted cross-border data flows, the importance of cross-border data flows in spurring the global economy did find its way into the Final G-20 Leaders Declaration — which, of course, both countries signed.
Geopolitically, the importance of India’s data governance stance cannot be overstated as it could pave the way for the approach adopted by other emerging economies — most notably the BRICS countries. Likewise, the U.S. has important thinking to do around such questions as what shape a national data privacy law could take. Even though the two countries’ views on data may be quite different from one another, the seats that India and the U.S. have at the table for global data governance discussions — alongside others like Japan, China, and the European Union — underscore the value of meaningful interactions and mutual trust and respect on this issue.
Norms for a Democratic Digital Future
Finally, as the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts and the Open-Ended Working Group meet to resurrect the norm-formulation process for fostering responsible state behavior in cyberspace, India has some homework to do. Even though it has been a member of five out of the six Group of Governmental Experts set up thus far, India is yet to come out with a public statement delineating its views on the applicability of International Law applies in cyberspace. Further, India has also failed to articulate a cohesive digital strategy — instead relying on a patchwork of hastily rolled out and often ill-conceived regulatory policies, some of which commentators in the West have hastily labeled as digital authoritarianism. The U.S., for its part, amidst a cutback to diplomatic cyber engagement (as part of cutbacks to diplomacy writ large), could also up its support of international engagement on these issues. Its recent repeal of net neutrality protections could also be argued as a step back from long-time international norm promotion around internet openness.
Through a combination of domestic policy gambits and foreign policy maneuvers, both states need to draw lines in the sand that safeguard human rights, international law, and democracy online, while arriving at some balance with each other’s national interests.
A primary example lies with artificial intelligence (AI). AI has found increasing use in digital authoritarianism, as dictators use automated, intelligent systems to boost their surveillance capabilities. The Chinese government has arguably been at the forefront of this enhanced level of authoritarian rule for the digital age.
In addition to focusing on AI applications for everything from natural language processing to self-driving cars — through investments, strategies, policy documents, and so on — Beijing has also been deploying AI in the service of large-scale human-rights abuses. Chinese strategy papers on AI, while similarly emphasizing many commercial or benign applications and raising attention to such issues as algorithmic fairness, concurrently have discussed using AI for “social governance,” censorship, and surveillance. To combat the rising intersection of AI and digital authoritarianism, the U.S. and India could wield enormous leverage — as the two largest democracies in the world — in governing these technologies in a democratic fashion that counters dangerous arms-race narratives and uses of AI for surveillance and repression.
The same goes for paying attention to technology exports and diffusion to human-rights abusers. For instance, companies incorporated in China, among those incorporated elsewhere, have been heavily involved in exports of dual-use surveillance technologies to other countries, including those with questionable or outright poor human-rights records. Although companies incorporated in democracies may engage in such practices as well, most democracies take steps to curtail these practices as much as possible, such as through the multilateral Wassenaar Arrangement — which lays out export controls around conventional weapons and dual-use goods and technologies. The U.S. has long been a party to this agreement, and India officially joined in 2018. Arguments persist about the extent to which Beijing is involved in these dual-use surveillance technology exports, but these exports may only increase going forward as companies increasingly sell not just internet surveillance tools but also dual-use AI tools. In this way, too, India and the U.S. could play an important role in countering the spread of such capabilities to human-rights abusers and standing against the spread of digital authoritarianism in the process.
The relationship here is, therefore, one that requires careful navigation for its significant geopolitical, economic, and ideological consequences. For the future of the technological relationship between the world’s largest democracies—and the extent to which they respect each other’s strategic autonomy while converging on issues of mutual interest—could determine the future of global digital governance.
Justin Sherman (@jshermcyber) is a Cybersecurity Policy Fellow at New America, a Fellow at the Duke Center on Law & Technology at Duke University’s School of Law, and a student at Duke University.
Arindrajit Basu is a Senior Policy Officer at the Centre for Internet & Society, India. A lawyer by training, he holds a LLM in Public International Law from the University of Cambridge.