To play a role in reframing Net governance, India must discard old clichés of diplomacy.
Washington’s announcement last weekend, that it would soon cede control over a core function of the internet, will intensify the scramble for reorganising an institution that has become a vital part of our lives. Despite the preoccupation of the political classes with the election, the security establishment in Delhi must prepare for the defence of India’s interests in sustaining the internet as a stable, secure and open democratic space.
In focus is a non-profit organisation called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) located near Los Angeles. ICANN can be conceived as a massive post office that lets zillions of information bits go from a point of origin, A, to an intended destination, B. At the heart of it is the domain naming system (DNS), a method of sorting mail in a post office.
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This involves organising a code that lends a unique identity to each user and facilitates easy communication among them. It is the DNS that lets us reach any site by typing say, “indianexpress.com”, rather than a series of numbers. The DNS is what makes the internet tick, by adjudicating potential disputes and maintaining the master list of various addresses and dividing them into different categories.
This system was initially run by one man, an American scientist, Jonathan Postel, in the University of Southern California, on a part-time basis under a contract with the Pentagon. The organisation he ran, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), was put under ICANN, established in 1998, as the first step towards the privatisation of internet management. It had a contract with the US Department of Commerce to run the DNS.
Last Friday, the commerce department announced that it would not extend the contract to the ICANN when it expires in September 2015. It has asked ICANN to prepare a transition plan for more broad-based governance of the DNS system, through consultations with all global stakeholders. The US decision to widen the base of internet governance was not unexpected. Since the revelations by Edward Snowden on the extent of American spying on governments and individuals, there has been worldwide clamour to end US dominance over the internet.
The pressure for reorganising internet management has come not only from countries like China and Russia, but also from American partners like Brazil and allies in the European Union. In fact, late last year, the small club of technical organisations that runs the internet called for cutting the internet’s umbilical cord with the US government. These included ICANN, the Internet Engineering Task Force, the Internet Society, the Internet Architecture Board, and the World Wide Web Consortium. Meanwhile, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which has long regulated global telephony, has become the venue for a determined bid by countries such as China, Russia and Saudi Arabia to end American primacy over the internet and significantly expand the role of governments.
The US is seeking to pre-empt this by agreeing to relinquish its control over ICANN but setting the terms for a new arrangement. Announcing the decision on ICANN, Washington said it would not accept the replacement of its supervisory role by another government or an intergovernmental organisation.
There will be hard bargaining among key governments, the technical community, corporations and civil society groups in finding a new way to manage the DNS. Seeking to build a new consensus, ICANN is all set to open international consultations, which will begin as early as next week in Singapore. ICANN is also supporting the Brazilian government in organising a major international conference of all stake holders next month in Sao Paolo. The ITU members are set to gather later this year in Busan, South Korea. The stage is set for a big political battle for the future of the internet.
Until now, the UPA has focused on strengthening cyber-governance at home, under the stewardship of the national security advisor, Shivshankar Menon. Delhi rightly considered building domestic capabilities as more important than grandstanding on the global stage about internet governance. Now, as jostling for internet management gets rough, Delhi will have to move with some speed to secure its interests and gain some say in the ordering of the DNS. At the international level, Delhi has regrettably been sending mixed signals on its approach to internet governance.
Delhi has a long record of posturing at multilateral forums and shooting itself in the foot when it comes to national interest. Believe it or not, in the 1970s, India opposed, at the UN, the direct broadcast satellite technology in the name of protecting its territorial sovereignty. With an IT sector that is deeply integrated with the global economy and contributing nearly 8 per cent of India’s GDP as well as the world’s third-largest group of internet users, India does not have the luxury of quixotic pursuits. Delhi’s negotiating position must be rooted firmly in India’s economic interests. Issue-based coalitions — with countries, companies and civil society groups — are critical for ensuring the best possible outcomes.
Internet governance is also about India’s democratic political values. During the Emergency, nearly four decades ago, when Indira Gandhi was trampling on democracy at home, the multilateralists in our foreign office were consumed by the quest for the so-called “new international information order” that sought curbs on the free flow of information across borders.
India’s challenges in negotiating a new framework for internet governance do not lend themselves to the old clichés of Indian diplomacy. Instead, India must strive to find the appropriate balance between the multiple antinomies that define the debate. These include tensions between freedom and state control, human rights and public order, privacy and collective security, intellectual property rights and fair use of information, corporate imperatives and public interest, technical efficiency and international legitimacy, and multilateralism and “multi-stakeholderism” that brings non-state actors into the equation.
In the end, governments should and will get some new responsiblities in the management of the internet. But India certainly has no interest in seeing the current universal internet broken into a “splinternet” of separate sovereignties.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’