Industry fears ITU control over Internet; excessive content control and surveillance an issue for civil society

India’s proposal on International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs), submitted last month to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the U.N. agency responsible for information and communication technologies, has drawn opposition from, and fears of content control among, civil society and the industry alike.

Sunil Abraham, Executive Director, Centre for Internet Society, told The Hindu: “The Indian government’s position on the ITRs can be improved, particularly with regard to the proposed definitions, approach to cyber security, scope of regulation.” However, he said, “we are confident that the Indian position will protect consumer and citizen interest once the government implements changes based on inputs from all… stakeholders.”

The National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), which represents the $100-billion IT and BPO industry, has strong views against the Internet governance model of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Numbers and Names (ICANN), but favours self-regulation. Its president Som Mittal says: “NASSCOM does not favour oversight by an existing U.N. organisation like ITU. Internet and infrastructure have to be in the hands of expert organisations with proven experience.” NASSCOM has also expressed discomfort with the inclusion of “ICTs along with processing” in Section 21E of India’s proposal, since this would subject IT and BPO industries to inter-governmental regulation through the ITRs.

The Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), which represents India’s largest mobile operators with nearly 700 million subscribers, has also opposed any role for ITU in the areas of international roaming and Internet governance, fearing a direct impact on domestic network architecture, costs and technology choices. COAI director-general Rajan Mathews said: “We are already regulated by the Department of Telecom (DoT) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI). Placing the ITU’s jurisdiction over us — where we neither have voice nor recourse — is unacceptable.” The COAI’s position is consistent with the GSM Association (GSMA), the world’s largest association of mobile companies representing 800 operators spanning 220 countries. The COAI further alleges that most of its inputs “have been rejected without reasons assigned or even a meeting.” It has lodged a protest with the DoT.

The Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI) has similarly protested against ITU’s jurisdiction over issues of Internet governance, architecture and cost.

Subho Ray, president, Internet & Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), said: “We represent a vast majority of Internet companies but have not been consulted by the DoT. We are completely opposed to ITU’s jurisdiction in any area related to Internet policy.”

The FICCI has also given detailed inputs on the dangers of allowing ITU’s jurisdiction, especially in areas of Internet policy and governance. It supports a bottom-up consultative and consensus-led multi-stakeholder approach, similar to the one propounded by Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal at the Internet Governance Forum, the world’s largest multi-stakeholder conference, held in Baku.

Several prominent civil society groups and members of academia involved in Internet governance also have apprehensions about expanding the ITU’s reach to Internet regulation through the ITRs. In a November 15, 2012 letter to Telecom Secretary R. Chandrashekhar, Society for Knowledge Commons, Internet Democracy Project, Free Software Movement of India, Delhi Science Forum, Media for Change and Software Freedom Law Center have complained about not having been consulted, while warning that India’s proposal “could have far reaching implications for the Internet.”

On the issue of cyber security, industry associations and several civil society groups are unanimously against any role for ITU, pointing out that including ill-defined terms such as ‘spam’ and ‘network fraud’ in a binding treaty is a terrible idea. Further, cyber security commitments can force India to cooperate with countries whose military and strategic interests are against it.

Kamlesh Bajaj, CEO, Data Security Council of India, and head of NASSCOM’s security initiatives, said: “Cyber security is sought to be taken over by ITU — an area in which it has little experience. Cyber security includes areas of application security, identity and access management, web security, content filtering, cyber forensics, data security, including issues such as cyber espionage and cyber warfare. The ITU has had no involvement in these matters over the last two decades, and should therefore stay out of them.”

Similar views have been expressed in varying degrees by the COAI, the IAMAI, the ISPAI and the FICCI. Dr. Ray of the IAMAI says: “cyber security is essentially a state prerogative and should not be part of an external treaty obligation. Any attempt to channel it through the ITU may be counter productive.”

Mr. Sibal, who has already been challenged by opposition to the domestic IT rules, is aware that if left unaddressed, opposition to India’s stance on ITRs will only escalate at a national and global level, and that if corrections have to be made in India’s position, those will have to be done consensually within the governance structure. Mr. Sibal confirmed that while cyber security was an area of discussion with the ITU, “the ITU does not have any role in Internet governance.”

According to him, either he or the Department will hold meetings on these issues with the industry to further evolve India’s position.

Mr. Chandrashekhar further confirmed that similar to several global national delegations, the government would include media and industry experts as part of its delegation to Dubai, the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT-12) will be held from December 3 to 14. The final decisions on the ITRs and the composition of the delegation would be announced the coming week.

A deeply divided house in Dubai is a strong possibility, with countries which favour democracy and free speech taking a stance against those who, due to political compulsions, have proposed inter-governmental control through the ITRs by the ITU, not just on Internet policy, but also its traffic and content, most of which automatically fall under the definitions of the ICTs.

The 193-countries at THE WCIT may well spend 11 days discussing national proposals to separate issues that can be addressed nationally from those which require inter-governmental cooperation, while further debating which platforms may be best to address global cooperation.

It is equally clear that the existing Internet governance system is unacceptable to most countries, and therefore a more evolved democratic and internationally equitable system, which is managed through a multi-stakeholder process and yet with a definite role for countries like India, appears the only way forward.

Mr. Sibal, at meetings with global Internet governance bodies in Baku, is learnt to have bargained hard for India’s explicit role in the existing Internet governance processes.