In an era increasingly dominated by digital technologies, the imperative to enhance digital life and improve accessibility and security has never been greater. This is where the concept of “public good” in the digital realm, manifested as Digital Public Goods (DPGs), becomes pivotal. Examples of DPGs include open-source software, information systems, and education portals that are available to all. These resources are critical in our interconnected world, not just as tools of convenience but as essential enablers of equitable access to information and services.

To ensure that DPGs are fully functional and accessible, robust infrastructure is necessary. This infrastructure must address digital goods’ technological, functional, and security requirements. For instance, DPI, or Digital Public Infrastructure, involves foundational technology systems such as identity systems, payment systems, and data exchanges. These infrastructures are crucial for the smooth operation of a digital economy, and they must be designed to be non-excludable and non-rivalrous, ensuring universal access.

India’s foray into DPI, with examples like the Unified Payments System (UPI), serves as a beacon. UPI has revolutionised financial transactions, enabling instant transfers at minimal costs and playing a significant role in financial inclusion. Similarly, the Unified Health Interface (UHI) is set to transform healthcare accessibility. These initiatives are a testament to India’s commitment to leveraging digital technology for public welfare.

DPGs are trust-based

At the heart of DPI’s success is a three-pronged approach: technological innovation, community engagement, and effective governance. The technological aspect emphasises scalability and security, ensuring that digital platforms are accessible while safeguarding user privacy. Community engagement focuses on making DPIs universally accessible, encouraging public participation and efficient grievance redressal mechanisms. Governance involves transparent and sustainable management of technology, with institutions held accountable and funding streamlined.

India’s DPIs are increasingly built using open-source and modular technologies, enhancing ‘interoperability’. This allows seamless information exchange between sectors, improving service delivery speed and scale. The open nature of these systems fosters integration into existing setups and maintains transparency, encouraging efficiency and public trust.

The inclusivity and welfare-based approach is a cornerstone of India’s digital public infrastructure. Government policies, from the National Communications Policy to initiatives by the National Payments Corporation of India, emphasise digital service accessibility while upholding privacy and security. This reflects a profound understanding that technology can be a powerful tool for welfare and societal upliftment.

In contrast to the approaches in the US and China, India’s model stands out. Despite its technological advancements, the US grapples with issues of privacy and monopolistic control in its tech sector. On the other hand, China’s tech industry, though robust, faces global scrutiny over government control and data privacy issues. Both models lack the balance that India’s DPI framework has achieved, integrating public, private, and civil society sectors in a synergistic manner.

Building trust

A crucial aspect of DPI is ensuring robust privacy and security measures. India has been proactive in this arena, introducing legislation like the draft Personal Data Protection Bill and establishing frameworks like DEPA for consent-based data sharing. These initiatives are fundamental in building trust in India’s digital infrastructure.

The notion of ‘trust’ in the context of DPI is complex and multi-dimensional. It involves ensuring data security, maintaining institutional accountability, and managing change effectively. Stakeholder involvement is key in this process, requiring a collaborative effort from public, private, and non-profit entities. Such collaboration ensures diverse perspectives and equitable service delivery.

Furthermore, the Indian Constitution provides a rights-based framework that supports the use of technology for socio-economic development, aligning DPIs with the broader goals of social justice and equity. This backing reinforces the legitimacy and security of India’s DPI initiatives.

The collaborative funding model in India’s DPI landscape is another hallmark of its success. Unlike digital infrastructures controlled by private tech companies, India’s DPIs are designed to be non-excludable and non-rivalrous. This model encourages private-sector innovation while preventing monopolistic control. The blend of public, private, and civil society partnerships in initiatives like the UPI system exemplifies this balanced approach.

Despite these advances, challenges remain. Cyber threats and data breaches are significant concerns in the digital realm. India’s commitment to addressing these issues is evident in its data privacy and security initiatives, but continuous vigilance and adaptation are necessary. Approaches like “Security by Design” and “Privacy by Design” are pivotal in ensuring robust and trustworthy digital systems.

In summary, India’s model of DPI demonstrates a comprehensive approach to digital public goods. It balances innovation with democratic principles and welfare orientation, offering a blueprint for global applicability. As digital technologies evolve, India’s experience provides valuable insights for creating accessible, secure, and beneficial digital public goods, setting a standard for the rest of the world to follow.

Ravi is District Collector, Jashpur, and Sunil is a US-based cyber security advisor. Views are personal