Having critiqued multistakeholderism, India must propose its own solution
Any outcome statement that describes itself as non-binding and as one that “hopefully contributes to the evolution of the internet governance ecosystem” sets itself up to being judged harshly by those outside the process and to be seen as the failure of key stakeholders to achieve meaningful congruence. The NET mundial produced such a document. Despite the criticism, the biggest achievement of this forum was the creation of a bottom-up, open and participatory process that allowed governments, academia, end-users, businesses and technical experts to deliberate on the future of internet governance.
These deliberations also compel us to take a step back and re-examine our national and individual expectations from such a process. Some of our conclusions challenge the myth of a “digital globe” managed through a universally acceptable rulebook or a new “digital United Nations”. There are three central notions which, though weak, seem to shape individual and national objectives and positions on an acceptable format for governing the internet. First is the belief that, somehow, the internet is the means to “universalism”, that because we are all digitally connected, nations, communities and societies will agree on freedom of expression, intellectual property, privacy and security, among other such issues. The internet is perhaps a form of hyper-globalisation. It is able to reach spaces and people at a rate and in a manner that was impossible in the real world. Yet, globalisation does not imply universalisation. Every time human rights, intellectual property or cultural agendas are sought to be superimposed on what should be a realistic conversation on the efficient management of a useful medium, there will be discord. Real-world issues need to be addressed at the appropriate forums that are meant to deal with them. Therefore, the treatment of issues such as freedom of expression, privacy, surveillance and intellectual property and innovation in the NETmundial outcome document is what it would always be; an accommodation of multiple positions and a play of words that neither pleases nor hurts anyone.
The second set of arguments seems to build around the mistaken notion that a different governance structure (not dominated by the US) would somehow prevent spying, intrusion and surveillance. Governance and surveillance and criminality tend to get conflated. For the current discussion, let us assume that the critical resources that allow the internet to operate are not managed by the US. Will it prevent state and non-state actors, say in our neighbourhood, from spying, acquiring data or illegally intruding and harming devices and networks? Illegal activities are exactly that, illegal, and cannot be legislated. Sovereign states will have to agree to certain conventions and thereafter regulate behaviour within their respective territories. It would be more productive to create legal frameworks that would define jurisdiction and quasi-sovereignty for data flows, digital transactions and data storage. The discussion on these issues has been deferred to “beyond NETmundial” as per the outcome statement and must be pursued.
The third notion that seems to permeate some policy circles in various national capitals is that the internet is a “global common” and, therefore, nations can collectively legislate its equitable use or “fair use”. Net neutrality advocates within civil society also seem to align themselves to this notion. Both will be disappointed. The internet, as we know it, is a collection of private enterprises, small and large, organised and random. The individual user is an entrepreneur too, a consumer and producer. And the weight that any entity or geography enjoys in the digital marketplace defines the power relationship vis-à-vis others in the digital domain, as it does in energy markets or any other marketplace. If the US, India, China or Brazil enjoy a certain weight and can influence the operations of Facebook, Google or Microsoft, it is due to size and market potential. To assume that commercial considerations can be ignored and inter-governmental panels or civil society advocates can alter the commercial basis is to mistake the trees for the woods. What governments can do is create policy environments that allow proliferation of digital infrastructure and access to the net. What they can encourage is an environment where entrepreneurs thrive and innovators excel, and what they cannot and must not do is create a form of digital socialism that skews the marketplace. Even as the debate on net neutrality was unfolding at the NETmundial, the US Federal Communications Commission was changing rules that allowed providers differential tariffs for higher speed digital connections. It is time for some digital realism!
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For a country like India there are lessons and takeaways from this meet. India must bolster its weight in the digital marketplace, commensurate with the number of current and potential netizens. This would be possible only by creating capabilities and an environment where private businesses, SMEs and individuals can access and exploit this medium gainfully. India has the responsibility to enter into serious conversations on jurisdiction issues pertaining to its digital businesses, data flow and storage, and this may happen far more efficiently bilaterally than at such large gatherings. Since India has proposed the examination of the idea of multistakeholderism, it must come up with an alternative proposition for the others to consider soon and the first step must be a comprehensive domestic debate.
The writer is vice president and senior research fellow at the Observer Research Foundation