Move to form body with 50 governments to oversee internet governance

The raging controversy over possible excessive state regulation of the internet based on the IT Rules 2011 is now likely to be dwarfed by discussions in Geneva later this week over India's proposal to the United Nations General Assembly, for government control of the Internet.

Led by the Commission on Science and Technology for Development, the Geneva meet is a multi-stakeholder discussion platform on Internet governance structures.

In its proposal submitted to the General Assembly in New York on October 26, 2011, India has argued for a radical shift from the present model of multi-stakeholder led decision-making, to a purely government-run multilateral body that would relegate civil society, private sector, international organisations as well as technical and academic groups to the fringes in an advisory role. The proposal has been floated sans any public consultation, despite the move impacting the country's 800 million mobile and 100 million Internet users.

India is pushing for the creation of a forum called ‘Committee for Internet Related Policies' (CIRP) to develop internet policies, oversee all internet standards bodies and policy organizations, negotiate internet-related treaties and sit in judgment when internet-related disputes come up. The catch is that India's formal proposal is for CIRP to be funded by the U.N., run by staff from the U.N.'s Conference on Trade and Development arm and report directly to the U.N. General Assembly, which means it will be entirely controlled by the U.N.'s member states.

At present, the Internet is governed by a voluntary, multi-stakeholder group called ICANN or Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, which keeps the Internet free and, for the most part, decentralized. ICANN already has a Government Advisory Council (GAC), which invites participation from governments across the world, including India. ICANN is headquartered in California, essentially because the Internet was born in the US. Control by the US government over its governance was eventually handed over to non-profits during President Clinton's tenure.

India's proposal could prove controversial for multi-stakeholder communities within the country and across the world, since it entails moving away from the prevailing democratic ‘equal say' process for internet governance to one in which governments would be front and centre, receiving advice from stakeholders and deciding the way forward.

Ironically, India's move to establish government control over the internet came within months of Anna Hazare's success in gathering large crowds at the Ram Lila grounds in August 2011 – a part of which was fuelled by the internet and social media. By early October, Mr. Hazare powered up his campaign further by blogging, tweeting and launching a Facebook profile to connect with his supporters.

The government of India's statement is amusingly defensive, going into some detail to clarify that its proposals ‘should not be viewed as an attempt by governments to take over and regulate and circumscribe the Internet'. It also naively declares that the move addresses the need for ‘quick footed and timely global solutions and policies'. How a 50-member inter-governmental process lodged within the UN bureaucracy, which will meet once every year for two working weeks in Geneva, can respond to decisions that need to be made quickly is unclear.

In response to a detailed questionnaire sent by The Hindu, the Ministry of External Affairs, directing the queries to the Department of Information Technology (DIT) said, “The Indian position on global Internet governance is determined and guided by the DIT. The Department's instructions for India's position at the upcoming meeting in Geneva are still awaited”. This lack of clarity is despite the fact that the global discussion is scheduled for May 18, just three days away. The DIT did not respond to The Hindu's queries despite repeated reminders.

India's move could be guided by apprehensions over Western governments' proximity to ICANN. While experts say this must be addressed, it certainly must not be at the cost of making the Internet a hostage to 50-odd governments.

Russia and China, along with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan have already declared extreme positions for government control over the Internet. Last year, Vladimir Putin, who was Russian Prime Minister at the time, stated his goal, to impose ‘international control over the Internet' through the International Telecom Union, a treaty-based organisation under the auspices of the U.N.. Echoing this view, Houlin Zhao, Director of the ITU's Telecommunications Standardization Bureau and a former Chinese government official said, “The whole world is looking to a better solution to internet governance, unwilling to maintain the current situation.” Before this, China, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan had introduced a UN General Assembly resolution proposing a ‘code of conduct' for the global information society.

Though less extreme, India's proposal appears to be a definite shift towards state control rather than a participative model.

India's proposal may also garner support in Geneva from South Africa and Brazil as part of ‘enhanced cooperation'. With governments around the world spooked by the power of social media and the Internet, which led to the Arab Spring, a wave of demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that toppled decades of dictatorship in countries like Egypt and Libya, it is even possible that India may find passive backing of many governments under the garb of ‘fighting cyber crime and unrest'.

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