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Cast a wider Net

India needs to break out of the status quo on internet governance.

Written by Hardeep S Puri |
Updated: July 17, 2014 12:32:25 am
NSA-main The revelation explains a phenomenon that earlier appeared inscrutable, that of employees of multinational internet and telecom majors masquerading as spokespersons of the Indian telecom and internet industry.

The summoning of the US charge d’affaires to South Block on July 2 on the issue of snooping by the US’s National Security Agency (NSA) was a welcome step. The revelation that the BJP was targeted for snooping as long ago as 2010 is not at all surprising. It can now be mentioned that immediately after India was elected to the United Nations Security Council in 2010, a request was made by the permanent mission of India in New York to South Block, asking for safeguards against precisely such an eventuality.

By no stretch of definition can the then main opposition party in India or, for that matter, the Indian delegation to the UN, be regarded as requiring surveillance by the NSA if the concern is anchored in the desire to counter terrorism.  Equally, to try to defend the sweeping collection of phone and internet records on the grounds that it was only gathering “metadata” is profoundly misleading.

The radio silence from the UPA government on revelations by Edward Snowden almost two years ago that the NSA engaged in massive snooping operations at a global level, including telephone conversations of leaders of other countries, was in marked contrast to reactions from other countries. Brazil’s cancellation of a state visit to Washington DC at the invitation of President Barack Obama and the public expression of outrage, including the recent expulsion of the senior-most intelligence operative by Germany, a close ally of the US and Nato partner, stand out in contrast. The Indian protest under the UPA was low-level, belated, feeble and pro forma.

It would have been embarrassing for the government of India to condemn such a practice by the US if, for example, Vodafone and/ or AT&T were to come out with a public assertion in response that they were extending similar services to India at the request of the then government. Recent revelations by Vodafone that India was among the governments which asked it to snoop/ wire-tap calls, e-mails and text messages going into and out of the country have surprisingly not received the attention they should have.

The revelation explains yet another phenomenon that earlier appeared inscrutable, that of employees of multinational internet and telecom majors masquerading as spokespersons of the Indian telecom and internet industry. When questions relating to global internet governance acquired salience, this particular group cornered the space for discussion and, through motivated writings, sought to propagate the thesis that the “multi-stakeholder” model advocated globally by the multinational internet and telecom majors resonated in India as well, with little or scant regard for the long-term interests of India and Indian internet and telecom majors.

The NETmundial conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil, in April this year produced an outcome that fell far short of the expectations of most observers and sought to preserve the status quo. The US administration’s generous offer to make adjustments to its authority over ICANN has come with conditionalities and time-frames which have made them meaningless, if not impossible to achieve.

India’s principal concerns and long-term interests with regard to global internet governance require the renewal of our commitment to protect and promote the internet as an unprecedented tool of innovation and empowerment. India should reaffirm our adherence to all obligations under the various treaties on human rights to which we are a party, in particular to those relating to freedom of expression. We should also commit ourselves to all measures to bridge the “digital divide”, both nationally and internationally. India and Indian IT enterprises will no doubt need to preserve and enhance the interests of Indian users of the internet, whose numbers have been growing greatly in recent years.

Indian IT companies need to preserve the global competitive edge secured over the years. They also need to assess the possible evolution of the IT industry over the next 20 years or so and orient themselves to the changing demands of the global industry. They can thus seek to build on the comparative advantages that they have enjoyed till now. This will require encouraging creativity and innovation as well as setting up enterprises tailored to the next generation. India has to move up the value chain in the global IT industry in the long term. This would imply a much-needed transition from providing IT skills and back-room services to making its own branded services and products and leading global innovation in IT.

Several international public policy issues pertaining to the internet, including, among others, the infrastructure and management of critical internet resources, already stand identified by the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS). These include issues of considerable interest and relevance to developing countries, such as the bridging of the digital divide, interconnection costs and participation in global policy development. Several new public policy issues have emerged since the WSIS, such as cloud computing, mass surveillance and the collection of metadata, the use of cyber weapons and jurisdiction.

Plurilateral agreements among developed countries on substantive policy issues and treaties negotiated among them have remained the dominant global governance model in the internet arena. The inclusion of developing countries in global norm-setting and design of digital architecture will continue to pose an important challenge in the coming years. Without such inclusion, the inherently global nature of the internet will be threatened —  there is the danger of fragmentation of the internet through disparate national policies.

The principal challenge before Indian policymakers is to move away from the short term and the cacophony organised by the status quoists, forcefully articulate the long-term interests of the Indian internet and telecom majors, and design and put in place the necessary eco-system and policy framework for the purpose. We should aim at building the next-generation editions of TCS, Infosys and Wipro, and move up the value chain. The Vodafone revelation has come not a day too soon, and will hopefully serve as yet another wake-up call.

This will require not only rejigging domestic policy, but also making necessary changes in articulating India’s position in international forums on issues relating to global internet governance. Over the last four years, the UPA government had allowed itself to be led by the spokespersons of global industry; it is high time that this was challenged. The government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has an excellent opportunity to reverse this trend, make the necessary and imperative course corrections, and move in the right direction.

The author, a retired diplomat and BJP member, is non-resident senior advisor, International Peace Institute, New York.
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