Telecom Department having discussions with stakeholders and within Ministries

Content regulation, surveillance, filtering and cost of the Internet access have emerged as top concerns for advocates of online freedom and civil society worldwide, ahead of a key inter-governmental meet on International Telecom Regulations (ITRs). The government of India is preparing its final position on these issues.

This discussion among 193 national governments will be held under the aegis of a United Nations body, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), in Dubai in December.

The agenda for discussion will impact the future of the Internet and its 2 billion current, and roughly 3 billion potential users by 2015. Even in India, 381 million mobile phone owners have Internet access with an additional 125 million who access the Internet through smart devices, computers and laptops.

Those arguing for a free web fear that general language, under the garb of cyber security, can be used as a camouflage for legalising censorship, surveillance, take-downs, blocking websites and even clandestine monitoring.

Proposals, backed by Russia and China, along with Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have been submitted for the U.N. — the world’s biggest bureaucracy — to fundamentally enhance ITU’s control of and regulation over the Internet. This will be the first time Internet regulation, under the cover of “international cooperation,” could be included in binding treaties similar to international law — like the WTO framework — to recast the global Internet policy framework, architecture and openness. Above all, the outcome of the negotiations could adversely impact the cost of access for citizens in India and result in content filtering. Arab states have also come out with proposals that could be made into international law.

The Department of Telecommunications (DoT) has invited inputs on key issues from industry associations such as the CII, the FICCI, the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), the Association of Unified Service Providers of India (AUSPI) and the Internet Service Providers of India (ISPAI). These bodies represent India’s eight mobile service providers and roughly 120 ISPs, which serve 700 million mobile customers and 125 million Internet users. DoT Secretary R. Chandrashekar had recently told the media: “We are still having discussions with stakeholders and within the different Ministries. Once we have had those discussions, we will firm up the details of our position. It is an evolving situation.”

Troubling proposals

Some of the troubling amendments suggested to the ITRs, which were last revised in 1988, include the modification of section 1.4, and addition of 3.5, which will make some or all ITU recommendations mandatory. This will move the current ‘light touch’ regulation, which is mostly voluntary and to a large extent transparent, into closed door inter-governmental negotiations that exclude business, civil society and the academia.

Russia and Iran want modification of section 2.2 to include Internet traffic termination as a regulated telecom service. If adopted, this proposal will mean metering international traffic along national boundaries and billing the sending party of the traffic — as is now done for ISD calls. Critics fear that this will create a new revenue stream for corrupt, non-democratic regimes, while raising the cost of accessing international websites and information, especially in developing countries like India.

Russia, Arab countries and Rwanda have proposed the addition of a new section 2.13 to define “spam.” Experts believe that this will create a global, legal handle for national governments to read all emails — even those between private individuals.

Similarly, modification of section 4.3 to introduce content regulation, including spam and malware, is being done the first time. This will give the ITU a role in content surveillance and regulation where it has no expertise. It further places issues of free speech in the hands of 193 countries with different levels of tolerance for freedom of expression.

The addition of a new section 8.2 on regulating online crime again allows government surveillance and content regulation through an inter-governmental body.

With just six weeks left for the conference, the government is expected to cement its final position soon after reconciling an array of industry and inter-ministerial inputs.

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