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An effective digital republic prioritizes individual agency and choice. When done right, DPI can support both.


6 mins read

The term republic has its roots in the latin res publica or rule of the public. Over the centuries, it has come to mean a system of government that derives its power from the people rather than from another basis, such as heredity or divine right. As countries around the world race to deploy powerful systems as part of their digital public infrastructure (DPI), it is important to examine the extent to which these deployments adhere to republican values and deliver power to the people.   

In his book, The Digital Republic: On Freedom and Democracy in the 21st Century, Jaimie Susskind argues that “to be a digital republican is to hold that digital technologies should be accountable to the people over whom they exert power, and shaped according to those people’s values.” If implemented and governed well, DPI can empower people and contribute to a well-functioning digital republic. But, if implemented and governed poorly, it could do the opposite – stripping people of their agency and fueling government abuse of power. With rising authoritarianism in countries across the world, good DPI governance has become even more important, as it could largely determine the effectiveness of digital republicanism.

Governments are increasingly recognizing the potential of good DPI to catalyze greater inclusion, trust, and choice. They’re also recognizing the need for good governance.

After ceding the digital infrastructure space to the private sector for almost two decades, government participation has seen a resurgence with digital public infrastructure. In the past, governments have deployed one-off technology solutions addressing a single societal need, such as paying taxes and utility bills, or registering for a driving license. In contrast, DPI provides greater opportunities through the creation of ‘reusable services,’ which can be implemented by the government and private sector to deliver multiple solutions that benefit individuals.

DPI generally includes digital identification, civil registry, payments, and data exchange that can be used to build a wide array of services. For example, governments can integrate identification, civil registry, and payments to deliver Direct Benefit Transfers to citizens, while FinTech’s can integrate identity, data exchange, and payments to deliver loans, insurance, wealth management, and other services to individuals. For governments, DPI’s reusability signals a fundamental shift in approach, from implementing disparate, single-use services to creating an interoperable, foundational digital layer. However, this shift comes with a new set of challenges and opportunities. 

Recent G20 recognition of DPI is one such opportunity. At the 2023 G20 summit, India chose to make DPI one of the four pillars of its presidency. Against a backdrop of contentious geopolitical issues, G20 countries unanimously agreed on the importance of DPI. They officially made reference to DPI and aligned on the way DPI was defined: “a set of shared digital systems that should be secure and interoperable, and can be built on open standards and specifications to deliver and provide equitable access to public and / or private services at societal scale.” In addition, they should be “governed by applicable legal frameworks and enabling rules to drive development, inclusion, innovation, trust, and competition and respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Could DPI offer a way to reboot our digital world?

Our current status quo is one where centralized, private sector digital platforms are rule makers. On the flip side, governments, individuals, and everyone else in the ecosystem are rule takers. The convenience of buying things at the click of a button and the opportunity to network and connect with people around the world was enticing. But this model has resulted in a Faustian bargain. Individuals have given up tremendous control over their data, while sellers are forced to pay hefty commissions and have less agency over the services they provide.  

 Private platforms with their “Move Fast and Break Things” motto have left a trail of challenges in their wake. The growing wealth gap is one manifestation of the rise in the power of these platforms. For example, restaurants on a food delivery platform might not get access to the data on the consumers who are buying their products. With control over large volumes of data, delivery platforms might identify the most popular and profitable businesses and undercut restaurants by creating their own brands. High transaction costs could become a barrier to entry for enterprises that wish to sell products and services online. The lack of meaningful options could force individuals to give away rights to their data with little recourse should the misuse of their data cause them harm.

Between its rapid onset and sparse legal precedent, the rise of social media, search engines, and e-commerce platforms took policymakers by surprise. Faced with such challenges, governments have had very few levers with which to regulate digital ecosystems. In the digital age, legal remedies alone remain insufficient to govern society. Penalties and fines for harms are often imposed well after the harms are done. Organizations, especially big tech companies, treat these as the cost of doing business and carry on with minor changes to their standard operating procedures (SOPs). Therefore, in most cases, legal remedies are akin to locking the stables after the horses have bolted.  

The advent of DPI offers a new possibility of enforcing laws through techno-legal regulations, where laws are embedded into the very design of DPI. For example, an e-commerce solution within DPI can enforce techno-legal regulations that prevent banned substances from being sold on its network. Similarly, data exchange can embed principles like consent and privacy into the data exchange process. Techno-legal regulations, in combination with DPI, can be used to ensure that we break out of this perpetual cycle of post-facto enforcement of regulations.

In this context, an ideal intervention is one where governments deploy DPI to give individuals and organizations meaningful agency over their data, enable competition, encourage innovation, and redress some of the power imbalances inherent in centralized platforms. 

At the same time, we must acknowledge that the worst-case scenario is one where governments use DPI to abuse power by controlling information about their citizens, setting arbitrary rules of the game, or providing preferential terms to their favorites. For citizens, unchecked government dominance in the digital sphere is orders of magnitude more dangerous because governments control instruments of coercion like the police, tax authorities, and others. As Susskind says, “A system of governance that merely replaced the dominium of technology corporations with the imperium of the supercharged state would be actively harmful.” 

Susskind recommends that any action by the state should be strictly proportionate to its purpose. “Then, where possible, the work of governance should be done at arm’s length from the central state. And finally, the law must place firm restrictions on what the state itself may do with digital technology.” The G20 does acknowledge these concerns, when it states that, “When developing, deploying, and governing DPI, we note the importance of prioritizing secure and inclusive approaches that respect human rights and protect personal data, privacy, and intellectual property rights. For this, we recognize the importance of governance frameworks and institutional capabilities that seek to ensure that DPI is safe, secure, trusted, accountable, and inclusive.”

With stakes this high, we must ensure that DPI is designed, implemented, and governed effectively to support a healthy digital republic.

Striking such a fine balance is a difficult art, but one that must be mastered if we are to
cultivate a thriving and prosperous digital republic. Governments implementing DPI must take every stakeholder along, while building institutional checks and balances that protect the rights of in dividuals, promote innovation, encourage competition, distribute wealth equitably, and build better outcomes for society. In this regard, the recently-announced initiative from UNDP and the UN Tech Envoy’s Office to develop a Universal Safeguards Framework for Digital Public Infrastructure is an important and timely step forward.  

In addition, to promote a digital republic that prioritizes individual choice and agency, the DPI community as a whole must focus on building positive global norms around DPI. These include deployment-level governance rules, tools, and institutions at the national level, as well as a suite of practical safeguarding tools for actors both within and outside of government. Even as development and funding agencies pour billions of dollars into building and deploying DPI, there is an urgent need for them to invest in institutions that think deeply about the complex governance issues that accompany DPI. Governments must also build deep institutional capacity in privacy, security, competition law, and other relevant areas. In doing so, governments and the DPI community must adopt an opposite approach to the private sector’s notorious, “Move Fast and Break Things.” Instead, the need of the hour is to move thoughtfully and fix things. 

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