The fear of the unknown and the rise of Internet nationalism are threatening to deconstruct the current model of Internet governance.
For a technology that was prophesied to break through global borders, to unify one and all and to create an international netizen, the Internet has fostered the ugly head of nationalism quite well.
A deepening mistrust and a propensity to believe the worst about one another—qualities which sparked other delightful events such as the nuclear arms race— have now manifested in the form of a ‘cyber sabre rattling’.
It doesn’t matter whether it is India banning China’s Huawei or ZTE from building fibre optic network for the country, or France asking Skype to register as a telecom company, or other European and Indian companies wanting American Internet giants to dole out a little extra under the facade of fairness.
Countries such as Russia and Japan want their own national operating systems as well – a recent white paper released by China pointed out the flaws in over-adoption of Google’s Android operating system.
Carve me out a piece, will you?
Let’s not forget that several nations have already taken the leap— Iran, China and Syria— which have gone ahead and created a ‘national Internet’ or Intranet for themselves. And this is exactly what is at stake –for the lack of a better term— nationalizing the Internet. Each country carving out a piece of the World Wide Web for themselves.
Why does such a cold (cyber) war exist? The answer to that question lies in the same answer to the question – Why did IIIT Allahabad temporarily ban Facebook use? Fear is the answer you should be looking for. As Frank Herbert of ‘Dune’ fame put it – ‘Fear is the mind-killer, fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.’
When things spread across the online world, it assumes an almost omnious and satan-like connotation in the imaginations of the foolish-minded. When students of IIIT Allahabad spread abusive messages, the faculty and administration were left at a loss. After all, it isn’t easy to crackdown on – it isn’t a physical noticeboard where one can simply drag it away or throw a black sheet over.
Worse yet, there also appears to be no simple origin to the offending messages. When one teacher whispers to the other “Did you see the post that was put up online?”, it instantly becomes ten-times worse than if they said “Did you hear what that Iyer Maami said out loud today?”.
A fear of the unknown, a fear of the technology of which old-school academia has no understanding of, results in the technology being banned. And is this not true for the online cyber-war that exists today?
Fear the red Chinese
The U.S Government and its agencies openly hack and snoop with impunity – yet we are to be scared of Chinese hackers, whose ability to do so in an effective manner is in all likelihood much less? Let us not pretend as if there exists a certain logic in fearing one nation more than the other. After all – does India not source extensive amounts of defense equipment from all sorts of countries, or is that okay only if kick-backs are paid? Yet we do not allow companies like Nokia Siemens Network to build our national broadband network?
Nevertheless, Internet governance and the multi-stakeholder model will be the victim of this new fragmented Internet. For how can we talk about a citizen-oriented approach towards governing the Internet, if it is divided at the behest of various countries? At that point it will be a downtrodden shadow of what the Internet used to be, with doors locked and signs telling you what to browse and what not to browse.
While business concerns and lure of profit will blunt the move towards further fragmentation, India finally stands in a position of power, in that it can actually tip the scales. As comedic and tragic as it may seem, India was the lone developing nation that some managed to vote against a United Nations treaty that sought to bring the Internet under the purview of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). India essentially reaffirmed that the issues relating to the governance of the Internet should be done through a multi-stakeholder model that is mainly civil-society oriented.
Let us have no grand delusions however, – India’s track record when it comes to Internet governance is less than spotless, and it is nothing less than a miracle that its delegation to the ITU conference voted that way it did.
What India needs to do right now is follow through with its vote and continue along the same path. The temptation to tinker with the Internet will be seductive, especially as religious and social tensions carry over to the online world. However, much like how the new Pope religiously resists the use of condoms – India must resist any temptation to meddle with freedom of speech!
What it does not need, however, is to succumb to the various technophobic pressures that IIIT Allahabad did. The absence of Internet nationalism will be a wonderful gift for the next generation. Why spoil them, the way our predecessors did to us with religious and social chest-thumping?