Saturday, 29 January, 2022

Time To Promote Digital Governance

Narayan Prasad Ghimire

The 58th annual report of the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) has suggested that the government should bring the digital platforms under tax regime. This is possibly for the first time the OAG has recommended for the digital taxation. At a time when the digital activities are gaining pace in Nepal of late, it is relevant to mull the digital taxation.

The recommendation will obviously contribute to intensifying the debate whether the existing tax laws are adequate to regulate digital platforms. Digital activities ranging from digital/online payment to ride-hailing and food takeaway services to numerous Apps have been thriving in the country while there has been an alarming presence of foreign tech companies, including Facebook, Messenger, YouTube, Twitter and Google. A question may arise how to tax the tech companies while they have origin and physical presences abroad. If they do business in Nepal, why can't they be imposed tax? It is another point to consider.

Thriving new media
Similarly, though the internet has helped a lot to intensify the convergence of media reducing their operation cost, the traditional media -- print, radio and television -- are engulfed with the flood of misinformation and finding themselves hard to show their presence. It has direct impact on readers and other media consumers as well. The media have the gatekeepers i.e., copy editors, editors. But the new media like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and other platforms have no gatekeepers, thereby fueling the misinformation across the globe. It is worth mentioning here that scholars argue the 20th century was characterised by difficulties to access information while we are facing challenges to find right information in the 21st century.

Also, the journalists happy to see their quality news getting viral instantly are equally distressed over the flurry of nagging comments over minor mistake. With the smartphone in everyone's hand, programmes and incidents are reported too quickly by any citizen that the news about them appears too late and stale when printed and broadcast. What is more worrying is the shifting of advertisements to the digital platforms, which heavily dented revenue in the traditional media, causing financial instability. This is a global phenomenon and small and local media are bearing their brunt.

Moreover, the amplification of voices, especially of backward and marginalised ones via social networking sites, is unprecedented. The voices and concerns that are ignored and under-reported are brought to fore. It has in a way challenged the elite capture of public sphere. The multiplicity of voices has held those in power and polity accountable. But, the spiraling digital harassment of and hate speech against women, minorities, backward people and particular community has weakened its credibility. Efforts are being made to capture and sway the digital public sphere in a way the internet is for the benefit of only certain groups and community. In Nepal too, we can easily notice the misogynistic posts on Facebook and Twitter.

The number of cybercrimes -- both traditional crimes amplified by the computer and internet, and the new ones solely dependent on computer and internet -- is increasing day by day, adding extra security challenges. Women are at the receiving end of anonymity provided by the internet. It is learnt that most of the cybercrimes are perpetrated against women in Nepal. The tech companies have emerged so vehement that they are diving deep into people's minds and changing their behaviours. With users' likes, posting, sharing, tweets and retweet, they are earning. It is what writer of ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power’, Shoshana Zuboff calls the capitalisation of human emotion.

In addition to this, the big techs are often accused of violating users' privacy and misusing their data without consent. As the big techs have equal impacts on their users across the globe, we cannot deny the fact that our data may be misused at any time. The misuse of data and mis- and dis-information are again linked to election. In the West, the elections were affected by the targeted advertising, and algorithmic manipulation by the tech companies. The adverse impact of tech companies in 2016 elections in the US and the UK are often reported and a huge research was conducted. The Western countries, which used to call internet the foundational infrastructure of democracy, are now reconsidering the role of internet- especially the maneuver by the tech companies via internet.

Another appalling and appealing aspect of modern technology is digital slavery. The digital deluge with hyper-connection in the cities is denting much the social cohesion and creating a new homogenous digital community. Digital divide is creating generational dispute. Nepal is suffering the consequences of meagre digital literacy. Due to trans-border nature, the digital and internet issues pose similar challenges to all countries. In this age, no person, industry or country can run without internet. So, harnessing its benefit and taming its negative sides must be taken together. Issues of digital governance should be debated in a way that incorporates various sides. Digital governance is a vast regime inviting views from law, technology, policy, research, development, internet, and economy, among others.

Relevant bills
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology has come up with a draft of 'National Cyber Security Strategy, 2078' and sought inputs from concerned stakeholders for this. Similarly, the House of Representatives has recently endorsed the Data Bill. The 'Bill Designed to Manage Information Technology' is under consideration in the Lower House for more than two years. Are the existing laws and policies in Nepal adequate to regulate digital activities? How can we tackle online hate speech without impinging on citizen's rights to free speech at the same time? How do we generate revenue from economic activities occurred via digital/internet spaces? Whether the draft bill on cybersecurity strategy creates safe and resilient cyberspace with strong adherence to human rights principle and commitment is equally important. It is high time Nepal also augmented discussions on digital governance.

(Ghimire works with National News Agency, and is internet governance enthusiast.