This is the second post of a two-part series which examines India’s participation in UN-affiliated processes and debates on ICTs and international security.
The first part offered an overview of how ideological divisions are shaping UN debates around the international framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. In this post, the author evaluates India’s stated positions on ICTs and international security at forums affiliated with the UN.
Author: Sidharth Deb
As our digital transformation story has accelerated, Indian authorities have proactively worked on domestic laws, regulations and policies to govern digital and ICT domains. Prominent examples include its net neutrality regime; the 2021 intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics regulations; a soon to be enacted data protection law; and the National Cyber Security Policy, 2013, which is undergoing an overhaul. When it comes to institutional responses, India has, inter alia, operationalised a nodal Computer Emergency Response Team (“CERT-In”), sector specific CERTs, the National Critical Information Infrastructure Protection Centre (“NCIIPC”) to secure critical information infrastructures (“CIIs”), and the National Cyber Security Coordinator within the country’s National Security Council Secretariat.
Conversely, India’s participation at international cybersecurity processes like the United Nations’ Group of Governmental Experts (“GGEs”) and the Open-ended Working Groups (“OEWG”) remains less developed. It does not reflect its status as a digital deciding swing State in cyber norms processes. Some describe it as lacking cohesion, without substantive or long term commitment to advance an international agenda. They have further characterised India’s position as one of silence, ambiguity and prioritising immediate national interest. India has even shied away from supporting multistakeholder led norms packages on international cybersecurity such as the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace. And this perceived positional ambiguity is further reinforced by the fact that it supported both Russia’s proposal for the first OEWG and the US’ proposal for the sixth GGE. India has also endorsed Russia’s proposal for an ad-hoc committee for a cybercrime convention under the United Nations General Assembly’s Third Committee on Social, Humanitarian and Cultural Issues.
Indian Statements on International Security and ICTs
Given that India has an opportunity to assume an internationally significant role in international cybersecurity and norms related debates under processes like the 2nd OEWG, this post attempts to extract and infer meaning from India’s seemingly inconsistent and ambiguous positions. This involves an analysis of publicly available evidence of India’s participation in working groups and other forums within the UN. Subsequent takeaways reflect a composite examination of:
- India’s 2015 Comments to UNGA Resolution 70/237, which endorsed the GGE-developed international framework for responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace;
- India’s statement at the June 2019 Organisational Session of the first OEWG;
- India’s 2020 comments on the initial pre-draft of the OEWG’s report. These comments have been taken down from the OEWG website.
- February 2021 comments/remarks and proposed edits (January 2021) by the Government of India on the zero draft of the OEWG’s final substantive report.
- India’s statement at the UNSC Open Debate on international cybersecurity (June 2021).
While the Indian delegation participated in the first substantive session of the 2nd OEWG in December 2021, its interventions are, as of writing, unavailable on the OEWG’s website. Based on an overview of the aforementioned statements five key trends emerge.
First, the Indian Government appears to prefer state-led solutions over multistakeholderism to cybersecurity. While broadly highlighting the importance of multistakeholderism within internet governance, India’s 2015 submission at the UNGA has argued that governments play a primary role in cybersecurity since it falls within the umbrella of ‘national security’. India has also made explicit recommendations at the OEWG negotiations to remove references to “human-centric” approaches to replace them with terms like “peace and stability”. Such statements convey a top-down outlook to ICT and cybersecurity policy. India prefers stakeholders play a secondary role in cybersecurity policy as stated in its intervention at the UNSC. The Indian Foreign Secretary, at the UNSC, opined that stakeholders can play an important role in supporting international cooperation on cybersecurity.
Such positions are consistent with the Indian Government’s disposition that technology environments should adhere to the rule of law and policies framed by appropriate government authorities. Even so, domestically, the Indian government has demonstrated a willingness to participate in multistakeholder dialogue (at forums like India IGF) and seek stakeholder inputs on related policy matters.
Second, India aims to bring content, behaviour and speech over social media and the wider internet within the scope of international cyber security. When discussing the scope of cyber/information security, India has repeatedly referred to cyber terrorism, terrorist content, virulent propaganda, inciting speech, disinformation, terror financing and recruitment activities, and general misuse of social media. This is of course consistent with its domestic policy stance on stricter regulations for social media intermediaries under the 2021 intermediary guidelines and digital media ethics code. India has even called for international dialogue and cooperation to counter terror propaganda, remove content and real time support with investigations. It has called upon the international community to recognise cyber terrorism as a special class of cyber incident which requires stronger international cooperation. As discussed in Part 1 of this series, the OEWG may be receptive to broadening the scope of information security to include issues relating to online speech and social media. This is also evidenced by the fact that several States have raised similar issues during the first substantive session of the 2nd OEWG in December 2021.
Third, India appears to prefer an internationally binding rules-based framework on ICTs and cyberspace. This is evident from both India’s 2021 submission to the OEWG, and its 2021 intervention at the UNSC’s open debate on cybersecurity. These submissions confirm that India appears open to a treaty/convention-based pathway to international cybersecurity. At the same time, during the 2021 OEWG negotiations India categorically requested deleting a paragraph which refers to a 2015 proposal for international code of conduct for information security. The 2015 proposal was tabled by UN Member States who are also members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (“SCO”). Notably, India joined the SCO a few months after the bloc tabled its 2015 proposal. The SCO’s proposal was largely steered under Russian and Chinese guidance.
Fourth, Indian interventions have laid heavy emphasis on supply chain security of ICT products and services. India’s interventions focus on two key aspects. First is an emphasis on cybersecurity resilience and hygiene among SMEs and children. The reference to SMEs can be considered an expression of its economic aspirations via digital transformation. Second, India has called for greater international cooperation on matters surrounding trusted ICT products and services, and trusted suppliers of such products and services. This includes mitigating the introduction of harmful hidden functions like backdoors within ICT products and services which can compromise essential networks. To this end, India has even called for the introduction of a new cyber norm relating to a standard for essential security in cyberspace. This position appears to align itself with recent mandatory testing and certification regulations for telecommunications equipment, and a more recent national security directive passed by Indian telecom authorities in response to growing concerns of Chinese presence in Indian telecom and ICT systems. Under this Directive, Indian telecom authorities have launched the ‘Trusted Telecom Portal’ which aims to ensure that Indian telecom networks only comprise equipment which are deemed to be ‘trusted products’ from ‘trusted sources’. Recent reports also reveal that the Indian Government is in the process of establishing a unified national cyber security task force which will set up a specialised sub department to focus on cyber threats in the telecom sector.
Lastly, on the applicability of international law to States’ use of ICTs—despite its participation in five out of six UN GGEs and the first OEWG—India has yet to substantively articulate an extensive position on this topic. Instead, it has made broader calls for non-binding, voluntary guidance from the international community on the application of key concepts within international humanitarian law like distinction, necessity, proportionality and humanity within the context of ICTs. India’s most animated interventions have pertained to jurisdiction and sovereignty. To be clear, it has not engaged on whether sovereignty is a principle or a rule of international law. Instead, it has called on the international community to reimagine sovereignty and jurisdiction—where a new technical basis (beyond territoriality) can allow States to effectively govern and secure cyberspace.
One such basis for sovereignty that India put forth before the OEWG relates to data ownership and sovereignty. It purports that such a philosophical underpinning would endorse people’s right to informational privacy online. Yet, these positions reflect and seek to legitimise wider trends in digital and ICT policymaking in India. This includes proposals to restrict cross-border data flows for different purposes and its challenges with carrying out law enforcement investigations owing to lethargic international cooperation via the MLAT frameworks.
India’s current engagement with international cybersecurity issues serves as a mirror for India’s domestic political economy and immediate national interests. Given that it occupies a pivotal position as a digital swing state with the second largest internet user base in the world, India could have the geopolitical heft to steer the conversation away from ideological fault lines—and towards more substantive avenues.
However, in order to do this, it must adopt a more internationalised agenda while negotiating in these cyber norms processes. Since it is still early days when it comes to substantive discussions at the 2nd OEWG, and negotiations at other forthcoming processes are yet to commence, the time may be ripe for India to start formulating a more cohesive strategy in how it engages with international cyber norms processes.
To this end, Indian leadership could approach the forthcoming National Cyber Security Strategy as a jumping off point from via which it can refine the Government’s normative outlook to matters relating to international cybersecurity, international law and responsible state behaviour in the cyberspace. The forthcoming strategy could also help the Government of India define how it collaborates with other States and non-governmental stakeholders. Finally, it could help identify domestic laws, policies and institutions that require reform to keep pace with international developments.