Industry, civil society to provide final inputs for ITU meet and local laws to be reviewed this week

Taking a liberal view of widespread concerns that India’s proposal on International Telecommunications Regulations (ITRs) submitted to the ITU could lead to online content control to curb freedom of expression, Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal on Tuesday committed that he would reconsider the language used in the proposal to ensure a match with the government’s genuine intent that neither the Internet, Internet traffic nor the content falls under ITU control.

Mr. Sibal was speaking at an Open House with industry and civil society to discuss the unpalatable components of India’s proposal submitted to the ITU on November 3, 2012 in the run-up to final negotiations at the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) 2012 in Dubai in December. A total of 193 government delegations are gathering in Dubai to renegotiate the ITRs — which are a binding treaty — for the first time since 1988.

According to Mr. Sibal, the options of modifying or dropping restrictive language remains open till the WCIT meetings begin on December 3. Industry and civil society have been requested to provide their final language with appropriate reasoning by Thursday.

The meeting was called after industry and civil society wrote to the DoT expressing concern over India’s existing proposals, which are at variance with their inputs submitted in September while additionally using language that could easily slide into content control and international regulatory oversight of an inter-governmental body in which industry, civil society or technical media have no real voice or dispute-related recourse.

Concerns are especially concentrated around the inclusion of the words ‘ICTs’, ‘processing’, ‘spam’ and ‘provisions’ relating to cyber security, since it is feared that these can be interpreted in the final treaty as giving access to ‘user information’ to governments, sparking off fears of surveillance and content control.

Mr. Sibal’s meeting also comes in the background of several new proposals pouring into the ITU, including one from Russia, which is fairly explicit in its intent that the Russian government would like to control the Internet through the ITU. Russia has included language relating to Internet, Internet traffic, Internet access, basic Internet infrastructure and importantly, National Internet Section under Article 2 of the proposals. On the other hand, 27 members of the European Parliament have voted against the ITRs being modified in any form or shape during the upcoming conference.

At the WCIT, governments will discuss proposals to modify the ITRs in the new global environment, and potentially ICTs and the Internet. While normal meetings at the ITU are technical, with some commercial aspects, this year’s conference in December is highly political and has divided the world amongst those who have explicitly stated that they want the ITU to have control over the web and issues of Internet governance and others that want to keep the cyber world out of the ITU’s control. Leading from this is the entire issue of online freedom of speech and affordability.

Issues of free speech have been dominating Mr. Sibal’s agenda both on the global and domestic fronts. On November 29, at 10 a.m., Mr. Sibal is holding a meeting of the ‘Cyber Regulation Advisory Committee’ following misuse of the IT Rules under Article 66A by police officials in Maharashtra to arrest two young girls for posting some comments on their Facebook account. Critics are divided on whether this was excessive use of police force or action based on language that lends itself to misuse.

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