Last week at the Vibrant Gujarat Summit, the chairman and the managing director of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Dhirubhai Ambani, urged Prime Minister Narendra Modi to move India decisively towards “data localisation”. Ambani’s push to shape India’s data governance is very much part of the efforts by private capital world-wide to define new rules for the digital age.

C. Raja Mohan
A leading analyst of India’s foreign policy, Mohan is also an expert on South Asian security, great-power relations in Asia, and arms control.
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Arguing that “data is the new oil”, Ambani said, “India’s data must be controlled and owned by Indian people — and not by corporates, especially global corporations”. Calling for a new national movement “against data colonisation”, Ambani added that “for India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India”.

This is the second time in a month that Ambani has spoken up for “data nationalism”. Ambani, who has disrupted the data and telecom market over the last two years, now has ambitious plans to take on the global retail giants like Amazon and Walmart.

If Ambani is poised to remake India’s retail market, China’s Jack Ma, the founder of the incredibly successful e-commerce and internet company, Alibaba, wants to win the world. If Ambani’s “data nationalism” might be criticised for erecting barriers against cross-border data flows, Ma wants greater liberalisation to make it easier for small producers in one country to sell to consumers across the world.

Ma is building an Electronic World Platform (eWTP) to do just that. Ma hopes the government and businesses could work together to remove multiple obstacles to the flow of e-commerce across national borders. As a logical complement to the eWTP, Ma has plans to disrupt the international logistics market and shorten the global supply chains.

If Ambani is framing his policy preferences in nationalist terms, Ma is wrapping his and China’s interests in universal terms. Sceptics might say the eWTP might actually consolidate Beijing’s dominance of the global trading system, founded as it is on a tight domestic nexus between capital and the Chinese Communist Party. But countries as different as Belgium, Malaysia and Rwanda have already signed onto the eWTP.

Like so many other businesses, retail and logistics are increasingly about effective collection, analysis and effective utilisation of data. As digitisation transforms the global structures of production and distribution, what happens to the consumers, whose data is becoming the key?

In the United States, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, has been railing against the “data industrial complex”. In a major initiative late last year on protecting the consumer and his data, Tim Cook argued that: “Our own information — from the everyday to the deeply personal — is being weaponised against us with military efficiency. Scraps of data, each one harmless enough on its own, are carefully assembled, synthesized, traded and sold.”

Although he did not name them, there was no doubt who the targets of Cook’s ire were — Google and Facebook. Gathering data and monetising is what Google and Facebook do. Apple’s business model is less reliant on data and Cook can take on Google and Facebook.

Cook is mobilising support for a comprehensive privacy law in the US that will protect the consumer from the companies that collect personal data. One of Cook’s key proposals is the establishment of a “data-broker clearinghouse” that will register all data brokers, enable consumers to track the transactions that have bundled and sold their data from place to place, and give users the power to delete their data if they chose.

If most of the world’s industry and commerce becomes digitised and hyperlinked, what happens to the security and integrity of the system as a whole? Here again, the private sector is taking the initiative. The leadership has come from Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft. Nearly 80 companies from around the world are now part of the so-called Cyber Technology Accord.

The accord’s objective is to empower individuals online and promote stability, security and resilience of the cyberspace. It is modelled after the Geneva Conventions — negotiated at the turn of the 20th century — that sought to protect civilians during armed conflict. The initiative has had some impact, for example on the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace that was unveiled by the French President Emmanuel Macron last November. The call has already been endorsed by a large number of governments and corporations.

The efforts of Ambani, Ma, Cook and Smith underline the growing role of capital in governing the digital era. After all the nature of these new rules will have a big impact on their respective businesses. In the 20th century, the policy implications of new technologies like nuclear, space and electronics were largely framed by the governments. Even more important, many of these breakthroughs came out of state-funded big-science projects.

In the 21st century, however, much of the innovation that is driving the digital revolution has come from the private sector. States are now hard-pressed to catchup with capital. As Delhi copes with the new imperatives of governing the digital age, any sensible policy will have to navigate the tensions between state and the citizen, capital and the consumer, public good and private gain and between competing interests within capital — both domestic and foreign.

Equally challenging are the complex demands of national security when the technological sources of economic and military power are in an unprecedented churn, and the old international structures for trade and security cooperation are breaking down.

This article was originally published in the Indian Express.