Indian Prime Minister Despite sweet-looking GDP numbers, Indian Premier Narendra Modi has much to pray for. Photo: AFP / Indian Press Information Bureau

The month of November saw the world’s first-ever conference dedicated to emerging and critical technologies. The Sydney Dialogue, a brainchild of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), was held virtually from November 17-19.

The presence of and the delivery of keynote addresses from key political leaders emphasized the criticality of the dialogue. In the current digital and information age, emerging technologies have become an intrinsic part of everybody’s lives as well as tools of statecraft.

There was a common vision echoed throughout the discussions: The design, deployment, and usage of these technologies need effective regulations to minimize the harms and maximize the benefits that critical and emerging technologies have to offer.

Shaping global technology governance by democratic states and institutions across the globe was the single point of focus by the panelists and dignitaries at the event. Finding the right balance of governance in the technology domain remains essential for the betterment of modern society.

This can be achieved through the adoption of technical standard-setting processes, design principles, ethical frameworks, and legal enforcement of technology legislation.

Ensuring all democratic states a seat at the table for creating a uniform technology governance framework remains a primary objective as more technologies emerge that can prove to be economically and geopolitically important. 

Need for active role of states  

The demand for democratic states to come together on technology governance was underlined by the challenges that technology has created and is continually creating for government institutions.

Technology remains a double-edged sword, creating vulnerabilities for every advantage it creates. Tackling these vulnerabilities and challenges remains critical for ensuring a safe environment for those using technology as an enabler in their daily lives.

The misuse of technology platforms for spreading disinformation by non-state actors has resulted in catastrophic consequences for some and has resulted in some states piggybacking on online harms gain a strategic advantage. There is also the fear of technology abuse by authoritarian regimes resulting in stifling their citizens’ voices. 

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’s recent take on technology has laid the groundwork for democracies around the world working toward fostering an open, accessible, and secure technology ecosystem.

The all-important issue of protecting the privacy rights of individuals remains at the forefront of government tech-policy objectives. Governments across the globe have the responsibility to keep the Internet “open” – away from surveillance and toward an inclusive, transparent system of data flow.

The socio-economic influence of Big Tech companies raises questions over the issue of governments’ sovereignty in the technology domain. Basic regulatory practices specific to the technology sphere are the need of the hour for finding the right balance between protecting the rights of individuals and those of the tech industry.

Multilateralism at the forefront 

The priorities of states and governments have been shifting toward the digital realm advocating for an increased role in the future of the online world. While some may argue that the need for regulations is a result of Big Tech companies becoming victims of their own successes, the missing gaps of accountability and transparency require the collective effort of governments to address them. 

There is a belief that a “multilateral gap” exists in the sphere of technology governance, with no institutional machinery in place to form a uniform set of rules and regulations. The credibility of such international standard-setting bodies that exist remains under question, especially with the increased influence of the Chinese in leadership positions within their working groups and technical committees.

A Bretton Woods–type system specifically for regulating critical and emerging technologies must be created to translate the views of democratic states into tangible governance mechanisms. 

The question on the kind of state interventions that are required is yet to be answered. However, the role of private technology companies in developing effective regulations has been recognized. States and the private sector working in tandem will lead to better governance mechanisms for emerging technologies.

The Sydney Dialogue was a major step forward taken by technologically advanced states around the world to signal their intentions to play a role in presiding over global technology governance frameworks.

Emphasis was placed on the fact that certain rules cannot be left to the whims and fancies of private companies and the need for crucial legislation concerning the utilization of technologies was also stressed.

The Dialogue also advocated a commitment toward organizing multi-group forums with the presence of private technology companies, government bodies, and civil-society organizations to formulate effective policies. 

The lessons from Sydney show the intent of collaboration among states to protect technology and its growth. Governments are now finding their presence in the field imperative. Governments taking on an active role in shaping discourse related to critical and emerging technologies is something to watch for. 

Arjun Gargeyas

Arjun Gargeyas is a research analyst at the Takshashila Institution, a public policy think-tank in Bangalore.