By: Arun Mohan Sukumar
Earlier this month, at the Plenipotentiary Conference of the International Telecommunications Union — its highest decision-making forum — India moved a radical proposal to govern the internet. Online traffic originating and terminating in a country should stay within that country, argued India, making the case for a “routing plan” that ensured all communication was traceable. The proposal also asked the ITU to help ensure IP addresses from different countries would be easily identifiable. Above all, India expressed its desire that the current system of allocating IP addresses, run by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) with the help of Regional Internet Registries, be made “fair, just and equitable”.
To suggest the proposal reflects the intention of governments to “take over” the web, as has been done, is to caricature the debate. For all its faults (and there are several), the Indian draft attempts to unsettle the status quo — an unregulated internet regime where both the infrastructure and the power to formulate policies to deploy it remain concentrated in the hands of a select few. Those who believe the current system is unsustainable but see the exaggerated role of governments in internet-related policies as problematic, have reviewed the Indian proposal with measured caution. But the troublesome provisions in the draft notwithstanding, the wide support it received from developing country delegations took nearly everyone by surprise. For a proposal that was articulated after little inter-ministerial coordination, minimal diplomacy and no public consultation, Document 98, as it was called, found backing from the G-77 as well as BRICS. The draft was finally shelved, given the vocal opposition it faced from Western governments, but the debate was nevertheless acknowledged in the plenary sessions. The desire to move towards a genuine, global framework that elevates the governance of the internet to a policy level rather than relegating it to a technical concern is so acute that several quarters of the international community were willing to discuss, if not offer issue-based support to, the Indian proposal. This state of affairs offers India a chance to present itself as a pivotal player in crucial internet governance negotiations next year. But for Indian diplomacy to be effective, the government must first set its house in order.
Internet governance is a two-level game that requires close coordination between domestic deliberations and international negotiations. Currently, there are at least three major international venues hosting IG talks: the ICANN, ITU and the UN-centric World Summit on Information Society process in Geneva (WSIS). There is no consensus as to which platform should definitively negotiate, enact and implement internet policies. By their very nature, some organisations privilege one party over the other (the UN universe favours developing governments, while the ICANN track leans towards the US government and the private sector and technical communities from developed countries). There is common ground to be had between governments and civil society in developing countries, but the lack of serious domestic engagement has unfortunately resulted in the debate being characterised globally as “governments versus civil society”. If governments across the globe do not have a unified position on internet policy, it would be impractical to suggest a “global civil society” can somehow transcend those differences. To negotiate from a position of strength, the Indian government needs to engage civil society constituents under clearly defined rules. It is the Indian government’s prerogative to define the rules of engagement in such an exercise. With a broad domestic consensus, it becomes easier for Indian delegations to articulate national interests, without prejudice to the forum where internet policies are being debated.
Regrettably, Central ministries are yet to agree on the broad Indian position, including negotiating red lines, which can then be placed for domestic scrutiny. It is imperative that the three nodal entities responsible for the articulation of internet policies — the ministry of external affairs, the Department of Telecom and the Department of Electronics and Information Technology — evolve a policy framework for discussions. It should outline at least four important concerns: the selection criteria for civil society interlocutors; the terms of reference of consultation; the role of non-governmental representatives in official Indian delegations abroad, if any; and finally, the publication of minutes of consultations. The Brazilian Internet Steering Committee, which has been meeting for two decades, could offer a good parallel, at least in terms of structure.
The response to its proposal at the ITU also highlights the way forward for India’s internet diplomacy.
Informal and backdoor consultations with many nations at the plenipotentiary provide three key lessons: first, countries were unable to gauge whether India is serious about its proposal, or it will be pliable to US pressure. Second, several governments were willing to engage constructively with the draft provisions but did not feel the ITU was an appropriate forum for the proposal. Finally, India missed an excellent opportunity to engage activists, businesses and academia: that New Delhi was willing to take them into confidence at a forum that has rightly been criticised for not being transparent enough would have sent the right signal globally. Engagement of this sort admittedly stems from a strong negotiating line, but the lack of diplomatic support to the Indian delegation at the ITU was telling. To this end, the MEA should play a greater coordinating role on internet governance issues.
Next year will be critical for internet governance talks, as the WSIS process prepares to review its goals and provide policy input to the UN General Assembly. In September, the contract that provides for US oversight of ICANN’s IP policies will expire, necessitating a global consensus on the institution that will take its place. If India is to make its voice heard, the NDA government must formulate a coherent policy that is sensitive to the concerns of national security while acknowledging the online freedoms of citizens.
The writer is senior fellow, Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi