BRICS Economies: Cyberspace High on Agenda

Alongside issues like infrastructure, connectivity and green energy, internet governance is a key area of focus for the five nations.
by Alpana Verma
Cyberspace high on agenda

Among the many similarities shared by the five BRICS nations of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa is how they have been tackling the rapid boom of global internet connectivity. Specifically, each of these countries has relatively high connectivity but a low awareness about cybercrime and cybersecurity. In fact, according to a 2014 study by McAfee Security, people in BRICS economies were the mostly likely to be victimized by cybercrime. Each is plagued by weak cybercrime laws, sophisticated hacker communities and a lack of solid intellectual property protection. These are factors that make the countries’ residents easy targets. When the five nations meet for the BRICS summit in Xiamen this year, cybersecurity and internet governance in general have been bumped up high on the agenda, alongside issues like infrastructure and green energy.

It is a timely issue, and questions on information security at the UN have been closely followed by BRICS nations since Russia’s draft resolution on “Developments in the field of information and telecommunications in the context of international security” was released. The resolution was introduced before the First Committee of the UN General Assembly in 1998 and adopted without a vote.

While the subject of information security and internet governance is important to BRICS economies, it is important to note that each nation is characterized by specific framework coupled with particular challenges. Only by understanding each other’s individual issues and the context that has inspired current respective internet governance can the BRICS mechanism forge a plan of action that is beneficial across the board.

In Brazil, for instance, internet governance is organized through the Ministry of Communication, which created the Brazilian Internet Steering Committee. Its purpose is to coordinate and integrate “all internet service initiatives in Brazil” as well as promoting “technical quality, innovation and the dissemination of available services.” In the post-Snowden era since 2012, Brazil has abandoned its former stance in which it joined China and Russia in calling for government-led internet and began supporting a multiple-stakeholder system.

Russia, led by its Ministry of Communications and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has been perhaps the loudest critic of the multi-stakeholder approach, arguing vigorously and repeatedly that the internet should be controlled by the government. The Russian proposal at the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in November 2012 went further than most by actually proposing a transfer of power from the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers to national governments under the authority of the United Nations. Russian President Vladimir Putin famously called the internet a “CIA project.”

South Africa, led by its Department of Communications, organized the South African Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and agrees with the other BRICS countries on many points. South Africa has joined several other countries on its continent in building on organizing mechanisms of the Economic Commission for Africa and the African Union, becoming organized and active in internet governance debates. It has also shown open support for a government-led internet governance system.

That leaves just China and India: two of the world’s fastest-growing economies. China’s regulatory body is its Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which organized and hosted the country’s first “Internet Roundtable for Emerging Countries” in 2012. The conference was attended by the other BRICS countries and became an annual event. It concluded with the declaration: “The Internet must be managed by governments, with particular focus on the influence of social networks on society.” In a White Paper released in 2010, China made its stance clear. And in November, 2016, MIIT released a new statement outlining the country’s intention to tighten administration of its internet. China has shown every indication that the internet must be subject to its national laws.

In India, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technologies is the relevant governing body. At the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, India proposed creation of a new UN Committee on Internet-Related Policies (CIRP). Though CIRP was accepted enthusiastically by many governments and civil society in developing countries, it also drew criticism for being too state-centric and relying on government control. Some of the strongest advocates of loose internet governance from the developing world came from India. The organization IT4Change is the torchbearer of this perspective. India has only recently made its concern for ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) obvious on various world platforms. In July 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi first mentioned cybersecurity in a speech in Brazil. “While cyberspace is a great source of opportunity, cybersecurity has become a major concern,” he declared. “BRICS countries should take the lead in preserving cyberspace as a common good.”

Among emerging economies, China and India are leaders in openness of ICT trade. Foreign investment in the sector is a crucial factor in ICT globalization worldwide. It is vital for both countries to attract foreign investment in the sector by laying a strong foundation for an amicable ICT environment. Construction of an open space for commitment and collaboration in ICT must be seriously considered. Instead of on selective development, focus must be placed on sustainable development for all BRICS member countries.

In September 2011, India, Brazil, and South Africa (IBSA) called for the creation of a new global body within the UN system to develop and establish international public policies for the internet. They recommended the establishment of an IBSA Internet Governance and Development Observatory, but the proposal was rejected.

At the same time, China and Russia were developing the ‘International Code of Conduct Information Security,’ which proposed that the UN Secretary General regulate cyber norms and governance. Efforts to generate a consensus around it are still underway. Additionally, BRICS nations have historically been concerned by the United States’ monopoly over the internet and have often suggested that the United Nations play a larger role in the development of standards for cyberspace.

In an effort to realize and strengthen cooperation in the areas like the internet, the leaders of BRICS countries organized a BRICS Working Group on ICT cooperation. The immediate release of the 2015 Ufa Declaration after the seventh BRICS Summit in Russia speaks to the results: In the first ever meeting of BRICS ICT ministers, the ‘BRICS ICT Development Agenda and Action Plan’ was proposed – a live document to engage key stakeholders of BRICS members to continually produce concrete and time-sensitive results. The Declaration not only emphasized the developmental role of the ICTs, but also recognized its instrumental role in the transition to a global knowledge society.

The second meeting of BRICS Communication Ministers was held in India in 2016. The Goa Summit set six areas of cooperation between member countries: National Digital Agendas (Brazil, South Africa), B2B engagement (China, Brazil), R&D and Innovation (India, China, South Africa), Capacity Building (Russia, South Africa), E-Government including mobile applications (India, Russia) and International Engagement and Coordination. The meeting resolved to embrace a common platform in joint research, design, development, manufacturing and promotion of high tech products in ICTs.

Considering the strength and shortcomings of BRICS, the member countries must leverage their regional integration to the fullest: Russia in post-Soviet space, China in East Asia, India in South Asia, South Africa in the African Continent and Brazil in South America. India needs to play a pivotal role in the creation of a network of alliances that would be comprehensive and representative of all major regions.

With internet governance having shaped up to be one of the most pressing issues of our time, it is crucial that the BRICS nations give it adequate focus at Xiamen, and after. While the developed economies of the world are grappling to integrate, the largest developing economies are surging ahead with new initiatives to refurbish their regional integration. And BRICS is a key example of what can be achieved with a collaboration of the largest developing economies to give an impetus to their global alliances. According to Stephen Ezell, “countries can enhance their productivity in two ways: by replacing their industries with the more advanced ones or to use ICT to increase productivity across all sectors.” The latter is a “golden road” for emerging economies.

The author is a PhD Candidate at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi.