Governments, industry, civil society meet in Azerbaijan to discuss future of Internet

India has decided to take a decisive stand on Internet governance at a conference being hosted in Baku, Azerbaijan, from November 6-9. An indication of the importance that India accords to the global dialogue on Internet governance is evident from the fact that Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal is himself leading the government delegation, which will include senior officials like DeitY Secretary J. Satyanarayana. It is also learnt that India will bid to host the Asia Pacific Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to be held in mid-2013.

“Effective Internet and a secured cyberspace are our collective responsibility towards future generations. Issues regarding Internet governance are complex and evolving and we encourage discussions on all its aspects,” Mr. Sibal told The Hindu.

The IGF is expected to witness robust representation from Indian business, civil society and academia. This is the 7th edition of the IGF, which began in Athens in 2006, followed by Rio de Janeiro the next year, Hyderabad in 2008, Sharm el-Sheikh the following year, Vilnius in 2010 and Nairobi last year.

Mr. Sibal is expected to share space with global leaders such as Under Secretary-General of the United Nations Department of Social and Economic Affairs (UNDESA) Wu Hongbo, International Telecommunication Union Secretary-General Humadoun Touré and Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev.

Pragmatic outlook

Over the last three months, Mr. Sibal has repeatedly sought a multi-stakeholder dialogue to build consensus on managing issues related to Internet governance following the controversy of the last few years wherein online freedom activists had opposed the government’s action of blocking websites, or directing takedowns on a few occasions, including after the recent riots in Uttar Pradesh, Mumbai and Assam.

Mr. Sibal and Mr. Chandrashekhar’s new public approach has been received with reasonable expectation that things will change not only on the ground, but also on global forums such as the IGF.

India also hosted a global conference on cyber security with Ficci, Nasscom and DSCI last week where Mr. Sibal sought cooperation beyond traditional government agencies, stating that “securing our cyberspace is not a technological problem that can be solved like a mathematical equation. It’s a risk to be managed by defensive technology, astute analysis, information warfare and traditional diplomacy.” Seeking global cooperation amongst stakeholders, he asked for “a collective and coordinated action at a global level as a prerequisite for securing the cyberspace.”

India is expected to become one of the most significant cyber nations in the world. Nearly 381 million mobile phone users have online connectivity through their phones and 125 million Indians are registered Internet users — served by a host of mobile and Internet service providers. McKinsey has recently said that the impact of the Internet on India’s Gross Domestic Product will touch Rs. 5 lakh crore by 2015 with Internet users set to jump to between 350 and 500 million users — based on two different estimates.

The IGF is easily the world’s largest multi-stakeholder platform for policy dialogues, which brings together governments, private sector, civil society, academia and the media to debate issues on the Internet and its future. It was born out of the meetings at the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) in Tunis 2005 and is managed by a Multi-stakeholder Advisory Group (MAG) with a secretariat based in Geneva.

The IGF does not make treaties or binding prescriptions on governments but instead “identifies emerging issues, brings them to the attention of relevant bodies and the general bodies make recommendations.” It is not a direct decision-making body but is perhaps the most significant conference impacting the growth and future of the Internet across the world which currently has 2 billion users. The number is expected to reach 2.9 billion by 2015.

Mr. Sibal’s statements will be watched with great eagerness and expectation across the world, not only because India’s position on Internet governance is pivotal, but also since in the past India was associated with an attempt to have a 50-member inter-governmental body called United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policy (UN-CIRP) to regulate the Internet.

The former Minister of State for Communications, Sachin Pilot, clarified after the Budapest Cyber Security Conference in October, consistent with several of Mr. Sibal’s statements, that India was looking at a far more pragmatic and multistakeholder approach to address Internet issues and was decisively against government control over the Internet.

Bilateral meetings

Mr. Sibal is expected to attend a high-level ministerial meeting and hold bilateral meetings with select counterparts.

The meetings will also see the participation of Telecom Ministers from Azerbaijan, Qatar, Egypt, Lithuania, Kenya, Hungary, Albania, Austria, Afghanistan, Japan, Slovenia, the U.K. and the United States.

The meetings should also see participation of Secretary-General, International Chamber of Commerce, Jean-Guy Carrier; Vint Cerf, universally regarded as the father of the Internet; president and CEO of ICANN Fadi Chehade; president, European Broadcasting Union, Jean-Paul Philippot; and president, Internet Society, Lynn St Amour.

The participation of the Indian government is eagerly anticipated, as this comes immediately after the first India Internet Governance Conference jointly hosted by Ficci, the Ministry of Communications and ISOC, which saw nearly 60 domestic and international speakers, along with 350 delegates, discuss issues of Internet governance with participation from senior officials of the government, industry, civil society, academia and youth.