Improving internet governance in Nepal

'The digital world is one of divides.' - United Nations

In September 2024, world leaders will gather to forge a new consensus on bridging the digital divide to deliver a better present and safeguarding our future. The United Nations has proposed a Global Digital Compact to be signed at that Summit to connect 2.7 billion more people, and develop principles and standards for data protection and privacy, sharpen accountability for malicious acts online and convene stakeholders to align AI technology.

The signing of the UN Global Digital Compact is on the horizon. What will Nepal’s role be? Where are we with our own research, planning and preparation? Who will represent Nepal in negotiations, and what are our objectives? Are we forming alliances with countries facing similar challenges to address the downsides of generative AI, or are we demanding the presence of content moderation teams on the ground from large tech platforms?

In October, I  attended the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kyoto (pictured, above),  and the experience made it clear that every country needs to be ready for the digital age. Nations and the international community must therefore team up and do their part to succeed in the fast-changing digital world. 

In one of our Parliament committee meetings, members proposed ideas aimed at curbing the spread of fake news, including a suggestion to require individuals with more than 10,000 social media followers to register their accounts. While the intent behind these proposals is to combat disinformation, it could have a potential impact on free speech and dissenting voices. These proposed laws could inadvertently silence those who challenge the status quo.

Recently, the Nepal government banned TikTok following the Cabinet's social media directives. The misinformation/disinformation campaign requires effective management, but resorting to platform shutdowns is an extreme measure. 

This decision raises concerns as it encroaches upon the fundamental right of freedom of expression. Shutting down platforms without a proper legal basis can be perceived as an authoritarian move, undermining the principles of open dialogue and democratic governance.

Additionally, a recent pivotal development is the breaking up of the old Information Technology Bill, which was originally abandoned due to controversial social media governance provisions. This bill is now being segmented into a Cyber Security Bill, a Social Media Bill, and a Software Technology Bill.

In 2013, a Master Plan on Information and Communication Technology in Education was formulated and launched with the technical support of UNESCO but was never implemented. Now, we have moved on to ICT Masterplan 2 prompting a question if our approach to Nepal's digitisation is on the right track. Are our investments yielding results? Are the organisations in place equipped with the appropriate Terms of Reference (ToR) to effectively support this endeavour?

Furthermore, there is a pressing need to establish clear standards for the plethora of software procured across various ministries and government levels. What about Annual Maintenance Contracts (AMCs)? Are these comprehensive, covering end-to-end procurements? Specifically, we must inquire whether contracts for entities like the passport office or national ID issuance include hardware component costs within the AMC, while separately addressing the maintenance and depreciation of physical assets.

During our examination of the digitisation process, we were made aware of cabinet-approved Digital Framework Nepal, but the document is collecting dust in a drawer. Soon after, we organised IT Bill Hackathon with software companies in Kathmandu to further identify problems within our system. One of the key lessons was the opaqueness of the legal language to the tech community, and their challenges to exist within legal frameworks that are complex to navigate and lack adequate support for their growth. 

If we take a step back, we will find that digital literacy among Nepalis varies greatly. While some are proficient, many lack basic skills like creating strong passwords, accepting cookies, and using public Wi-Fi safely. Open-source software adoption is limited, illustrated by the Election Commission website's reliance on proprietary software. Efforts for digital literacy and inclusion lack coordination, with uncertainty about roles and stakeholders. A more unified approach is needed to enhance digital literacy and inclusion in Nepal.

In Kyoto I learned how different countries are adopting unique strategies for digitisation and software development. For example, even in a technologically advanced nation like France, approximately 80% of data analysis required for decision-making can be effectively executed using MS Excel. 

This raises the pertinent question of whether our incessant drive for procurement leaves us overlooking the potential for adaptation and localisation from the Digital Public Goods library, a valuable resource that often goes untapped. There are many things Nepal can do, immediately and in the long term. 

Nepal can immediately establish government teams to engage with the public and encourage new ideas and for organisations to participate. It should create a platform for knowledge-sharing on technology, both within Nepal and globally.

It is crucial to transition from closed-loop systems to open-source solutions, making source code accessible and transparent. This way, codes developed with taxpayers' money can be reviewed by the public, fostering accountability. 

During various IGF panels featuring parliamentarians and researchers, the consensus was clear: the digital age necessitates robust data policies. A vital component of this is comprehensive data legislation. Such an act must establish clear guidelines regarding the collection, storage, and usage of data, encompassing healthcare, consumer, and individual national identification such as citizenship, passport, PAN, or national ID. 

Defining what data is collected, how and where it is stored, and for how long, as well as specifying how data is used, who has access, and under what conditions access can be overridden, are among the critical issues that require precise demarcation. 

This Data Act would apply to government agencies, non-governmental agencies, and private companies operating in Nepal, serving as the foundation for the country's national and international data-sharing policies while fostering competitive marketplaces to support SMEs. We have to make sure that people in Nepal are well-informed about the internet's management, that they have a say in it, and that the government is transparent and responsible in how they oversee it.

Nepal needs to look into best practices across the world, and we should invest our efforts in researching them. Moreover, we need to make sure that the research is well-communicated to the legislators and lawmakers, otherwise we risk repeating what we did with the TikTok ban where the Home Ministry conducted a study but lawmakers had no clue. This level of information gap even from the government to the legislation will instead create barriers in the democratic lawmaking process.

Once we are ready at the national level, we need to think globally. The Global Digital Compact is as fundamental as agreeing on human rights issues. But we must be clear about how we will put these international agreements into action at home. 

One question that emerged prominently in the IGF was the significance of realistic implementation plans. It is at this stage that many developing countries encounter roadblocks, owing to resource constraints and capacity limitations. For a practical digitisation plan, we need clear goals, resources, and choices we are willing to make. We must focus on what works for our specific challenges, instead of getting carried away with big ideas.

For instance, an educational mobile application alone cannot substitute for a lack of teachers in the classroom, nor can an agriculture app solely resolve the issue of market access for farmers. Often, the core issues are rooted in supply chain management and other fundamental areas. While digitisation is the way forward, trends should not distract us from the real challenges we face. Focusing on genuine problem-solving, rather than the appearance of technological advancement, is the key to realising tangible benefits from digitisation.

Again, planning on a national level is just the beginning; we also need help from the international community to set our goals and standards. This two-pronged approach is essential for dealing with global digital challenges. Even though there has been progress, more than 60% of Nepal still do not have access to fiber internet. This means we are not getting all the advantages of the internet. Nepal must train a big tech workforce that is skilled in different digital areas like cybersecurity, software, data management, and more. We should work together to boost our talent and connect them with the world.

It is heartening to see the wealth of resources available, and the ways to foster these connections. Potential resource pools — training in cybersecurity, opportunities to present research at IGF, and the chance for Nepalis to showcase their work in workshops -- can all be utilised to create a thriving digital ecosystem.

As we approach the signing of this compact, we must unite and brainstorm on how to make these aspirations a reality. Together, we can pave the way for a brighter digital future for Nepal.

Sumana Shrestha is a Member of the House of Representatives and a member of the Education, Health and Information Technology parliamentary committee. She is with the Rastriya Swatantara Party. 

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