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India's feeble claims to digital sovereignty

Jaijit Bhattacharya 

As India moves to occupy the space of an IT superpower, the claim to digital sovereignty appears hollow given that it has a feeble presence at the high-stake tables of IT standards. IT standards have become one of the preferred tools of giants from developed economies to extract undue economic benefit from emerging economies.

Given that India does not appear to have the political resolve to enhance its presence at the global forums on international IT standards, we seem to be abdicating our responsibility to secure our IT industry as well as IT usage.

The issue becomes even more severe when we observe that globally, nations and firms, are trying to convert technologies on which they have an intellectual property rights (IPR) into standards, thus forcing their monopoly on economies and extracting an unfair and undue economic benefit from manipulation of the global IPR and standards regimes.

The declared aim of standardisation is to enhance productivity and facilitate international trade. The WTO Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) agreement allows for simplification of trade and removes obstacle to trade; reduces need for changing design and manufacture to meet national requirements, reducing complexity and cost; and provides greater choice and understanding for customers.

Compare this to the case where the combination of IPR and standards can give undue economic benefit to large foreign players in developing countries such as India, without the monopoly players adding commensurate value to the economy.

A very good example of the devastating effect of the current IPR regime is the case of the DVD manufacturers in China who have to pay royalty charges on each DVD player manufactured that is to the tune of 33 per cent of the retail price of the DVD player, for a video format standard that is used ($20 royalty on a player of $60). China was helpless in preventing such an unfair cess being put on its domestic industry, demonstrating its lack of digital sovereignty at that point in time.

It is impossible for the majority of the citizens to buy a $400 (around Rs 20,000) PC when the per capita annual income of the citizens is around $500 (around Rs 25,000).

Therefore, if the 7.5 million PCs sold in India last year could avoid paying for the operating system, it could result in huge savings. This is possible as free software exists but the operating environment is heavily loaded against use of such software, which demonstrates India’s lack of digital sovereignty.

Similarly, other consumer goods with embedded software like DVD players, mobile phones etc., can also be made to cost less with the appropriate policy measures that India can take, only if India has digital sovereignty.

It has been observed that organisations file blanket patents on an emerging that is out of reach of developing countries. Such multiple patents are put in a manner that prevents late joiners from being able to find any niche of making any new contribution to the area without violating the patents already filed in.

None of the standards bodies such as ISO, IEC, are mandated to check if the standard adopted is truly royalty free. Thus, the global framework is being misused to indulge in anti-trust (monopolistic) practices.

This is where we start losing our digital sovereignty. It is imperative for India to ensure that it is a serious player in formulating digital standards in order to ensure security of its IT industry and to maintain its digital sovereignty.

The author is country director, government strategy, at Sun Microsystems. Adjunct Faculty at IIT Delhi and vice-president of Institute of Open and Applications, Government of West Bengal

First Published: Thu, April 02 2009. 00:59 IST