There is a circular firing squad of corporate, government and civil society interests.

If there were any doubts as to whether the stakes were high enough at NETmundial, a global conference that was recently held to determine how the Internet should be governed, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler put them to rest.

There is a perverse sense of irony in Mr. Putin calling the Internet a ‘CIA project’, and Mr. Wheeler turning his back on net neutrality, on the same day that over 1,200 participants from 97 countries gathered in Sao Paulo, Brazil to draft an Internet governance framework that would be based on the principles of inclusiveness and unity .

It was fashionable, in the 1980s, to believe that the Internet would bring about an end to national boundaries. Yet today, with applications that can pinpoint our location at any time, we find ourselves more anchored in geography than ever before. The World Wide Web has also become the lifeblood of our digital economy, and, consequently, there is a clash of corporate, government and civil society interests when it comes to the topic of Internet governance.

Telecom companies and civil society groups fight over issues of net neutrality and surveillance. Developing and developed nations fight over technical matters and co-ordination of the domain-naming system. And at the end of the day, NGOs hope that they don’t become puppets; allowed to sit at the negotiation table but not allowed to speak. This circular firing squad of vested interests assumed further importance in March this year, when the U.S Government announced its decision to give up oversight of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers , which looks after key Internet domain name functions.

There are three hot-button issues here. The first: should Internet governance be carried out through a multilateral model or multi-stakeholder model? The multilateral model, which is how the United Nations operates, involves primarily Governments. A multi-stakeholder model, however, recognizes that civil society groups, Internet users and corporates have a say as well. Needless to say, countries such as Russia, India and China veer towards the multilateral model. ‘Civil society’ and Western countries, however, are more inclined towards a multi-stakeholder set-up.

While a multi-stakeholder option seems like the more reasonable and politically correct choice, it begs the question: who are these civil society groups, who do they claim to represent, and how do we know that they simply haven’t been hijacked by corporate interests?

The second issue is the question of Internet fragmentation or ‘Balkanisation’ of the Internet.

Western countries and civil society groups fear that as countries such as India and Russia reduce their reliance on American infrastructure, they will shatter the global unity of the Internet and impose barriers that will hinder connections between users in different countries.

While this fear is real, it also shuts us off to looking at a different type of Balkanisation; one where we reduce dependence on surveillance- tinged, Silicon Valley-based services while promoting local and secure digital infrastructure.

In India, these fault lines are already being drawn, for better or worse: the Election Commission recently aborted a potential partnership with Google, for voter facilitation services, on the grounds of “national security”. Government officials are slowly starting to shun Hotmail and Gmail as well. Technology start-ups like Wonobo, a Google Street clone, are starting to receive Government backing.

The third issue is ‘net neutrality’—which Mr. Wheeler slammed the door on last week— or the principle that telecom companies should treat all Internet content equally as it flows through their cables and pipes.

If net neutrality is abandoned, Internet service providers would be allowed to prioritize certain types of traffic, leading to disastrous consequences. On most of these issues, and a few others such as intellectual property, NETmundial has scored poorly, mostly because vested interests often take root when the global community has to strive for ‘rough consensus.’

The conference’s outcome document takes soft stances on validating the multi-stakeholder model and condemning surveillance. Net neutrality for instance is relegated to a “point of future discussion’.

It is at this juncture that we can see that issues of Internet governance will be, more often than not, decided at other battlefields, where Internet users will have no say.

And this is a pity, because while global forums such as NETmundial may be non-binding and negotiation-friendly, there can be no compromise in the battle for a consumer-friendly, open and secure Internet.

anuj.s@thehindu.co.in

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