Strategic Need for Development of Digital Assets and Regulation of Data Centres in India

Digital Platform Economy has been rising very rapidly and thus forcing digital ecosystems for digital transformation in the digital world. 

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Strategic Need for Development of Digital Assets and Regulation of Data Centres in India

The Atmanirbhar Bharat (Self-Reliant India) Abhiyan is the Vision of Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi, of making India a Self-Reliant Nation, rested on five Is – Intent, Inclusion, Investment, Infrastructure and Innovation, and based on five Pillars namely: Economy (quantum jump), Infrastructure (that represents modern India), System (21st Century Technology-driven), Vibrant Demography (source of energy) and Demand (whereby the strength of Demand – Supply Chains be utilised to full capacity). “Vocal for Local to make it Global” has found its resonance across the country with respect to Missions viz., Make in India, Make by India, Make for India and Make for Global.

Digital innovations have given birth to Digital Platforms. The platform economy is economic and social activities facilitated by digital platforms. Digital Platform Economy has been rising very rapidly and thus forcing digital ecosystems for digital transformation in the digital world.  The Digital Platforms are categorised, broadly, as (i) Social Media Platform (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Signal etc.), (ii) Knowledge Platform (e.g. Yext, Quora), (iii) Media Sharing Platform (e.g. YouTube), and (iv) Service-oriented Platform (Uber, Ola, Airbnb etc.). Digital Platforms are considered very crucial for modernising Society. According to Dr. Jebamalai Vinanchiarachi, former Principal Advisor to the Director-General (UNIDO), “Seizing Opportunities” in Open Innovation and Value Chain Creation in the Digital World for Self-Reliant Economy, are prudent pathways for India.

Standardising the key technologies viz., A.I., Analytics, Blockchain, Cloud Computing, IOT, 5G, BigData and Ecosystems, and bridging the development gaps in human resources (both in Rural and Urban areas), shall facilitate furthering the development efforts in innovation and entrepreneurship.

The National Policy on Software Products-2019 has envisioned to drive the rise of India as a Software Product Nation. In view of its strategic importance for achieving the Mission of India is a 5 Trillion Dollar Economy by 2025, there is a strategic need for Development of Digital Assets and Regulation of Data Centres”, in India. This Note attempts to bring out this aspect in a very lucid manner. The Digital Assets include, among the others, (i) email Service Software and Provider, (ii) Instant Messenger (IM) Service Software and (iii) Video Conferencing Software Platform.

Strategic Need for Development of Digital Assets

  • Digital Platform for India eMail Service

e-Mail (Electronic Mail) is probably the grandparent of Internet technologies, based on a store-and-forward method and a reliable source of communication, and has become a popular means of communication, even though there are disadvantages (e.g. viruses) associated with it. Email addresses (e.g. [email protected]) are used as identifiers by most websites, cloud services, and even Operating Systems such Google Android and Microsoft Windows etc. eMails are automatically dated and time-stamped and admissible as evidence in the Indian Courts as the IT Act 2000 [vide section 2(1)(t)].

According to the Dataquest (July 2020 issue), “It is also the time for India to force digital policies that are tailor-made for the Indian scenario and tap into the vast treasure of technical competence at India’s disposal”. Indian citizens need to have emails created (in their local languages), stored and protected in India and seamlessly integrated with all the e-Governance applications, so as to create Society 5.0 and to achieve a self-reliant India.

The Common Public has to have an email created in various eMail Service Providers which has problems associated with data protection issues. The eMail Service landscape in India is heavily dominated by foreign-based services like Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Microsoft Outlook etc. As the services are offered without any cost under the free tier, these email platforms resort to monetising the user data, including the email conversations and attachments that get stored on their platform. There is a risk in R&D Theft and IPR. As the Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, said in 2010, “We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

India has big market potential in internet services. India was ranked as the second-largest online market worldwide in 2019. The number of internet users was estimated to increase in both urban as well as rural regions, indicating a dynamic growth in access to the internet. India has about 700 Million Internet Users across the country in 2020, and974 Million users projected by 2025.

The Market share of Free eMail Service Providers in India is Gmail (82%), Yahoo (6.1%) and Outlook (2.1%). The California law will govern all disputes arising out of Gmail’s Terms and Conditions, for Indian Users.

An IndiaeMail Service (IES) in 22 Constitutionally recognised Indian Languages shall form a crucial part of the overall National level Internet Resilience Strategy, which aims to ensure “uninterrupted service continuity” for the Nation during the time of Cyber Crisis, Disaster and Internet Shutdown, through Intranet of the country. It shall reduce the risk of Indian Citizens eMail conversations being exposed to surveillance. Email Data can be hosted and stored within India.

Key Challenges, among the others, to overcome shall be: (i) building public trust and service reliability, and (ii) encouraging citizens to sign up for India Email Service. Public Email Data Centres (e.g. Gmail) are not located in India. In view of its increasing internet penetration and mobile computing, India requires a State-of-the-Art eMail Data Centre (e.g. Gmail Data Centre), under the public funding, to facilitate StartUps to develop such Platforms and move into the revenue-sharing model, through appropriate national benchmarking. StartUps can be encouraged to adopt and improve the available popular Open Source Solutions Viz. Mail-in-a-Box, iRedMail and Modoboa, instead of developing ab initio.

India is a growing marketplace for eMail and its associated Apps, developed indigenously, and also have export potential to other countries under the “Vocal for Local and make it for Global” Mission. Thus Indian Mail Service will not only mitigate the risks on security but also generate huge revenue.

  • Messaging Software (Apps) Platform

E-Mail communication is widely used, in most business and personal communications, for many decades. But this communication is slow (as it is a store and forward) and it is not suitable for quick and real-time, multi-media, flexible-collaborative or large-group communications/discussions. Traditional text messaging (SMS and MMS) seems to be on its way out, as Messaging Apps attract more users.

Hence, an alternate communication, Instant-Messaging (IM), has evolved and been adopted worldwide.  IM offers real-time, multi-media collaborations, even with a large group of users. Further, IM does not have e-mail’s drawbacks like Junk, Spam etc. Many analytical/intelligence solutions are developed, enhancing value-addition on the information gathered from IM. Chatbots are an extended version of IM solutions. However, e-Mail and IM complement each other. IM does not replace e-Mail, as of now.

Messaging apps (“social messaging” or “chat applications”) are Apps and Platforms that enable instant messaging. In the current interconnected world, instant Messaging Apps have become a necessity. Such apps are available for various platforms for users to stay connected with their family and friends.

As per the available Report published in 2020, India has 700+ Million Internet Users, and almost every internet user uses one or more IMs. However, IM has also its own drawbacks viz., lack of standards/interoperability. This has led to using the same IM by all participating parties, difficult-archiving, intrusive, continuous notifications/alerts etc.

Popular Messaging Apps, among the others, include QQ (1999), Skype (2003), WhatsApp (2009), Viber (2010), Facebook (2011), Snapchat (2011), WeChat (2011), Line (2012), Slack (2013), Telegram (2013), Signal (2014), Discord (2015) etc. Many such apps have developed into broad platforms enabling status updates, Chatbots, payments and conversational commerce (e-commerce via chat). The User Base in India has been increasing for such Messaging Apps, especially for WhatsApp and Facebook Messaging Apps.

There are reports indicating drawbacks of using these IMs, viz., breach of privacy and security risks. Using IMs such as Signal, Session, Kontalk, Tox etc., built on Open Source Digital Technologies, may definitely help in overcoming these drawbacks.

Messaging App Data Centres are not located in India. In view of its increasing internet penetration and mobile computing, India requires a State-of-the-Art Messaging App Data Centre (e.g. Facebook Data Centre), under the public funding, to facilitate StartUps to develop such messaging Apps and move into revenue sharing mode, through appropriate national benchmarking. StartUps can be encouraged to adopt and improve the available popular open-source solutions viz. Signal, Tox and Kontalk, rather than starting ab initio.

 The Delhi High Court, has recently, refused to issue notice to WhatsApp and Facebook over its new policy, which has been challenged in the court, and during the arguments, the Court said that WhatsApp was a private app and that people were free to not use it. The message is very clear and loud to the Users and the Policy Makers in India.

In the Covid-19 pandemic era, the use of IM has increased several folds, due to increased activities like online meetings, online teachings, online-health-monitoring, customer services, special offers and incentives, updated catalogues, purchases and invoices, etc. Hence, there is an urgent need for operationalising Indian IMs Service, dovetailing Indian rules and regulations, to avail IM’s benefits while minimising its ever-increasing drawbacks.  There is a huge market to explore e-Commerce, agricultural extension services, health services, education services etc. while retaining the privacy of Indian Citizens.

Messaging Applications has the potential to make workplace communication efficient, and impact productivity. India is a growing marketplace for Messaging Apps, developed indigenously, and also have export potential to other countries under the “Vocal for Local and make it for Global” Mission.

  • Video Conferencing Software(Apps) Platforms

 Networked Governments, Organisations and Institutions, in the digital age, have always used means to connect and communicate with remote employees and clients, through Video Conferencing tools, over their Intranet and Internet Networks in India (e.g. NICNET Video Conferencing). Video Conferencing and virtual meetings are terms that are treated as interchangeable.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, in view of strict compliance of social distancing norms and adoption of Work-From-Home (WFH), the increased use of Video ConferencingSoftware Platforms was witnessed. Businesses have relied on these platforms to stay connected, exchange information, and work together, in order to keep operations running smoothly and consistently during this uncertain time. Video Conferencing Software Platforms viz., Zoom, Google Meet, ZOHO meeting, CISCO WebEx, Skype, Microsoft Teams, GoToWebinar, Adobe Connect, Amazon Chime, StreamYard, Star Leafetc., were used.

Communication, participation, and engagement are the pillars of successfully running the operations of a business. These troubling times have given light to different ways for businesses to stay connected with employees and managers.

Since February 2020, the World experienced an unprecedented shift to Working from Home, which has resulted in two significant transformations: (i) Organizations suddenly found themselves with the need to deploy real Video Conferencing on a massive scale, (ii) the threat of video conferencing security dangers quickly became a top issue. But there was a problem viz., IT was not ready, Users were not ready and the Video Conferencing Software Platforms were not ready.

During this period, the use of Video Conferencing Software Platforms faced issues related to Security challenges viz., bombing, data leakage, privacy shortcomings, performance challenge (QOS), reliability challenge etc.

When the Government of India has banned about 59 Chinese apps, Reliance’s JioMeet is India’s take on Zoom and is quite similar to Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams. Inscripts’s Say NAMASTE, 10Times’s Floor, and KL Meet are other Video Conferencing Software Platforms from India.

On April 13, the Central Government launched a challenge for Indian Tech StartUps to come up with alternatives to already existing video conferencing apps:  an Innovation Challenge for Development of a Video Conferencing Solution under the Digital India Initiative. Techgentsia Software’s Vconsol has won the Grand Challenge for Developing Video Conference Solution (Atmanirbhar Video Conferencing Solution), in August 2020, with the grant of INR One Crore.

India will be one of the biggest markets worldwide. With video conferencing becoming the new normal with most people working from home and the popular incumbent, Zoom, coming under a cloud because of security issues, a huge opportunity has opened up for Indian companies to come up with a viable video conferencing option.

The issue shall be“Where are live encrypted audio, video and text data stored in Secured Servers, in India or outside India?”. India cannot afford to have its data outside India, due to the emerging global security concerns.

Video Conferencing Software (Apps) Data Centres are not located in India. In view of its increasing internet penetration and mobile computing, India requires a State-of-the-Art Video Conferencing App Data Centre (e.g. Zoom Meeting Data Centre), under the public funding, to facilitate StartUps to develop such Platforms and move into revenue sharing mode, through appropriate national benchmarking. StartUps can be encouraged to adopt and improve the available popular Open Source Solutions viz., BigBlueButton, Jitsi, Jami etc., rather than reinventing the wheel.

Video Conferencing Software (Apps) Platforms have the potential to make workplace communication efficient and impact productivity. India is a growing marketplace for Video ConferencingSoftware (Apps), developed indigenously, and also have export potential to other countries under the “Vocal for Local and make it for Global” Mission.

Strategic Regulation and Control of Data Centres, in case of Sovereignty Violations

Race for emerging Data Centre Market

The convergence of Technology and Business is accelerating demand for digital infrastructure—including Data Centers—on a scale never seen before. The appetite for instant Network access, Computing resources and Big data has spread to almost all areas of the economy, with a corresponding demand for configurable Servers, Storage, Applications, and Services.

Adding to this demand are advancements in Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things (IOT), and 5G broadband, which are set to cause an upsurge in data traffic, as our lives become more interconnected through Smart Devices and real-time access to Products, Services, and Information.

In this era, data exists and is connected across multiple Data Centers, the Edge, and Public and Private clouds. The Data Centre must be able to communicate across these multiple sites, both on-premises and in the cloud.

Data is crucial to the success of most businesses today, so accommodating and securing it is a major business challenge. Data Centres are the backbone of our internet, as they store, communicate, and transport the information we produce every single day. The more data we create, the more vital our data centres become. With over 175 zettabytes of data expected by 2025, Data Centers will continue to play a vital role in the ingestion, computation, storage, and management of information.

The technology innovations viz., Software Container, Software Defined-Network etc., have brought down the cost of investment along with other benefits, for the establishment of Data Centres based on Cloud Services. Now it is common to have Cloud Services with both Software Containers, Container Orchestra System (e.g. Kubernetes) Software and Virtual Machines.

Building Data Centers in areas where internet use is booming can also be a strategic business move. If local businesses are growing, they might consider moving their operations to a nearby data centre. Companies rely on their information systems to run their operations, and if a system becomes unavailable, company operations may be impaired or stopped completely. It is necessary to provide a reliable infrastructure for IT operations, in order to minimize any chance of disruption.

 There are four main types of data centres viz., Enterprise data centres, Managed services data centres, Colocation data centres, and Cloud data centres. In this multi-cloud era, the Data Centre has become vast and complex, geared to drive the ultimate user experience. Traditionally, Coastal areas have been some of the most sought after locations for setting up data centres, due to access to internet landing cables via sea routes.

In the world of enterprise IT, Data Centers are designed to support business applications and activities that include: Email and file-sharing; Productivity applications; Customer relationship management (CRM); Enterprise resource planning (ERP) and databases; Big data, artificial intelligence, and machine learning; and Virtual desktops, communications and collaboration services.

By some estimates, the global Data Centre Construction Market might be worth up to the US $57B by 2025.

Data centres are at the heart of the World’s growing technological focus and are the physical facility that organizations use to house their critical applications and data. However, both the Central Data Centre Policy (Draft) and the existing State Data Centre Policies do not spell out very clearly the “strategic controls and regulations” of Data Centres in India, in case these centres are found to be working against the interests of the Sovereign Nation. Relevant Clauses of the Data Centre Policy 2020 (Draft) of MeitY, GOIas follows, strengthen this viewpoint: –

  1. Clause 1.3: The size of the digital population in India and the growth trajectory of the digital economy necessitates a strong growth of Data Centres, which has the potential to fulfil the growing demands of the country.
  2. Clause 1.4: The need for Data Centre infrastructure within the boundaries of the country is further necessitated by the data localization provisions of the proposed Data Protection Act and for the protection of the digital sovereignty of the country, in an increasingly connected world.
  3. Clause 1.4: …. enabling the Nation to become a global Data Centre hub.
  4. Clause 1.6: This policy aims to offset these challenges in order to accelerate the current pace of growth and propel India into becoming a global Data Centre hub.
  5. Clause 1.7: This document lays out a policy framework including various structural/regulatory interventions
  6. Clause 2.1: Making India a Global Data Centre hub
  7. Clause 4.1: Drive necessary regulatory, structural and procedural interventions
  8. Clause 5.2: For the long-term growth of the Data Centre sector in the country, it is critical to creating a congenial, competitive and sustainable operating environment for the businesses.
  9. Clause 5.2.3: Data Centres to be declared as an Essential Service under “The Essential Services Maintenance Act, 1968 (ESMA) …
  10. Clause 5.3: Setting up of Data Centre Economic Zones.
  11. Clause 5.4.2: Encourage joint ventures between foreign investors and domestic companies to promote participation from Indian companies, in the development of Data Centres.

The Make in India: Conducive Policy and Regulatory Environment to Incentivize Data Center Infrastructure in India (May 2016) and the Cloud Computing Ecosystem in India – TRAI Consultation Paper (CP)on Cloud Computing (2019)– are no exception in this regard.

Recently, Shri P D Vaghela, Chairman of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), said that “the country needs to transform from consumer to producer of technology, so as to be self-reliant in the technology space, which is critical for economic and statistical perspective,” and also “on rising data demand, the role of data centres attains equal importance towards becoming self-reliant in the digital space”. It is said very rightly so.

Strategic Control of Data

Data is not new but Oil, but it is now growing at an unprecedented pace. The growing interactions between data, algorithms and big data analytics, connected things and people are opening huge new opportunities. The formulation of National Data Strategies can help realise the potential of data for economies and societies. National Data Strategies (NDS) and Internationally Interoperable Approaches (IIA) can help unleash the economic and social potential of data, while effectively protecting privacy, intellectual property and other policy goals.

The past two decades have brought into sharp focus, the importance of User data, Ownership and Privacy.  With the very high financial rewards, data has been collected by large private enterprises, intermediaries and is an independent revenue stream for most companies.  Prone to misuse in the absence of comprehensive regulation, there is a massive global thrust by Governments and Civil society to reign in the unrestricted use of a citizen’s private data.  While legal options must be available, courts can take forever to decide, sometimes defeating the very objective of justice.

The Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 seeks to establish a Data Protection Authority of India(DPDA).  The Revised “Draft Report on Non-Personal Data (NPD) Framework” (published for public review till 27th January 2021, at www.mygov.in) proposes a single national-level regulation establish rights over NPD collected and created in India, with the NPD Framework becoming the basis of new legislation for regulating NPD, and also establishment of a “Non-Personal Data Authority (NPDA) of India”. The proposed DPDA and NPDA need to synergize with the objectives of the RTI Authority (Central Information Commission) of India and also that of the Competition Commission of India.

The ability to harness data is a technology-led initiative and the solution to avoid misuse also lies in technology.  The current need is for the Government to define Strategic Control of Data, with a clear method to implement, monitor and audit the custodian of data.  The process will require auditors who will independently certify and audit regular basis, thus reducing the possibility of misuse, while at the same time ensuring that when required, the government can access the data, based on well-defined procedures. Strategic Control requires implementation at multiple levels viz.,

  1. Access to raw data
  2. Access to metadata
  3. Applications whether an in-house, third party or otherwise that require data for business/analysis, do not access the basic data and only retain transaction IDs as markers, for future/regulatory reference.
  4. Sharing of data in a hashed format
  5. Audit to verify successful implementation as a necessary condition to store data and continuously challenge defined procedures.
  6. Compliance with requirements of data security.

Technology Imperatives for India

While delivering his Keynote Address at C0C0N (A virtual International Conference on Hacking and Cybersecurity, organised jointly by the Kerala Police) in September 2020, Shri Ajit Doval, the National Security Advisor, lamented that lack of indigenous digital solutions for data-sharing facilities and Social Media Platforms had adversely affected the nation’s self-reliance and cybersecurity, and urged StartUps to come up with solutions, in tune with the country’s requirements and build capacity to ensure that the nation’s critical cyber assets were being manned by skilful native professionals in resonance with the Prime Minister’s Call for Atmanirbhar.

While addressing the International Webinar on Open Source Digital Technologies Towards Self-Reliant India (Atmanirbhar Bharat) of the Shobhit Institute of Engineering and Technology (Deemed to be University) Meerut, on 17th October 2020, Dr. Kamlesh Kumar Bajaj, Founder Director, CERT-IN and Founder CEO, Data Security Council of India, titled “Technology Imperatives: Make in India for Self Reliance”, has listed out problems, challenges and priorities, as follows: –

  1. Pandemic has exposed our Weakness.
  2. No Platforms of Our Own – especially Video Conferencing, and Zoom emerged at the heart of WFH (Work from Home).
  3. No general-purpose Social Media Apps for messaging, entertainment, news, streaming etc. – Making India vulnerable to global suppliers, for data-stealing or loss impacting national security.
  4. Fake news on SM presents a major challenge.
  5. No indigenous email platform, despite being a huge market.
  6. Lacking in cybersecurity products and services
  7. Data sharing platforms – Key to Data-Driven Innovation with Data Centres, and Data Sharing Policies.
  1. Network bandwidth adequacy and reliability even in metro cities (4G poor in metros).
  2. Creation of 5G technology and networks in India.

Conclusion

Today, the process of sustainable development is not driven by a given country’s resource endowments alone. Rather, it is triggered by the new factors of production, i.e., information, knowledge, skill, technology, research, innovation and network. Digital Assets could play a pivotal role in dovetailing the above new ingredients of development locally, regionally and globally. In particular, digital platforms could effectively foster national, sectoral and incremental innovation systems. The needed Digital Assets are One eMail, One Messaging Platform for both SMS and MMS, One Video Conferencing Platform, and a series of Cloud Centers across India centrally managed by a Cloud Centre providing data storage as a Service, for India’s vibrant Demography turning into Society 5.0.

This Note envisions creating Digital Assetsas potential sources of wealth creation and as Public Goods under the PPP Business Model, through the route of “seizing opportunities” in Open innovation and Creating Value Creation Networks in the digital world, towards a self-reliant economy in India.  Under the PPP mode, it is suggested that the Private sector drives it from the beginning with joint investment, and the government assurance for using the infrastructure and Apps like email, messaging, video conferencing etc.

There has to be a regulation that will be fair to enable innovations, growth and competitiveness, and facilitate the scaling up of smaller Platforms, MSMEs and StartUps in the country:

Way forward

  1. Frame Unilateral Policy for Data Governance and Data Centre Governance, in particular to handling, sharing, storing and processing of data, with strategic controls;
  2. Formulate Policy for its own Standards which govern the Civil, Electrical, Mechanical & IT environments of Data Centre, as of now, most of the Standards are West facing;
  3. Treat Content Provider & Content Developers at par as far as sharing of content in the public spectrum is concerned;
  4. Regulate Social Platform & Mobile App, in terms of Data Sharing (like type of Content, Age barriers, Possible outcome of shared Content, and related Privacy which is mostly Provider-friendly and leads to unsolicited theft or sharing of data);
  5. Need serious monitoring of FinTech Companies (which is a very promising & upcoming sector) from an IT security perspective, as most of financial fraud and loss has created a serious threat to the financial economy of the Nation. The BFSI segment is broadly regulated in terms of the banking system;
  6. Need Deep Dive, from both Legal & Data theft perspective, as Mobile App and Mobile Operating System are operating in No-Check Environment;
  7. Cover Data theft in Criminal Justice System;
  8. Implement localization of Data should at par with Developed Nations, which will lead to huge revenue opportunity for the Government and plus will provide a platform for digital innovation.
  9. Adopt Unilateral Policy for regulation of Cloud Service Providers (CSP) and remove overlap (if any) of regulations, in this regard, between MeitY and TRAI.

Prof. M. Moni
Professor Emeritus and Chairman
Centre for Informatics Development Solutions and Applications (CIDSA)
Shobhit Institute of Engineering and Technology Meerut
(Deemed to be University)
&
Former Director-General, National informatics Centre
Government of India, New Delhi.


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Strategic Need for Development of Digital Assets and Regulation of Data Centres in India
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Digital Platform Economy has been rising very rapidly and thus forcing digital ecosystems for digital transformation in the digital world. 
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THE POLICY TIMES
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