Is India reviving its proposal for a multilateral UN body to take over the governance of the Internet?

by Anja Kovacs

Recent events at the UN CSTD Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation give the strong impression that this is indeed the case. 

In a submission to the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC), which met for the second time in Geneva last week, the Indian government recommended the following:

The UN General Assembly could embark on creation of a multilateral body for formulation of international Internet-related public policies. The proposed body should include all stakeholders and relevant inter-governmental and international organisations in advisory capacity within their respective roles as identified in Tunis agenda and WGIG report. Such body should also develop globally applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources.

Despite the fact that stakeholders from India already active within the field of Internet governance have overwhelmingly disagreed with India’s earlier proposal to establish a Committee for Internet-related Policies within the UN (UN CIRP), this proposal thus seems to have been revived.

Like the earlier one, the proposal that is currently on the table is problematic for a number of reasons. It clearly seeks to endorse governments as the primary stakeholders in Internet governance, whose dominance needs to be established at the expense of other stakeholders. Irrespective of the issue under consideration, other stakeholders will only be given an advisory role in Internet governance. Moreover, they will only be allowed to play the roles defined in the Tunis Agenda. That these definitions — especially where the role of civil society is concerned — are outmoded is something that has been recognised widely. During last week’s WGEC meeting, India acknowledged the debates around the role definitions of the Tunis Agenda, but said nothing about how these debates might affect its proposal.

Support for India’s proposal at the meeting of the 42-member WGEC only came from the government of Saudi Arabia and from an Indian civil society representative. The latter took with this a position quite radically different from other Indian members of civil society active in Internet governace, or indeed from most of global civil society in this field, who believe that a multistakeholder model for Internet governance is the way forward.

Many, including the Internet Democracy Project, have argued that there might at times be space for multilateralism within this multistakeholder model. For example, if a multistakeholder group comes to the conclusion that the best way forward to protect the right to privacy of all people in the Internet age is a new treaty, then from that point onwards, governments would take over as negotiating treaties is their job.

However, a crucial difference between such proposals and the ones currently and previously made by the Indian government is that in a multistakeholder model, broad agreement among all stakeholders, including on the modalities, is a prerequisite for any solution to go forward. The India proposals, in contrast, presume the necessity of government dominance in the policy process, irrespective of the problem at hand, and thus requires agreement only among governments. This not only means that inputs by other stakeholders need not necessarily be given due consideration, it also leaves the Internet policy making process much more vulnerable to the vagaries of global geopolitics.

The proposal by India that the new UN body would be responsible also for developing globally applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources is particularly surprising in this regard. So far, the coordination and management of critical Internet resources lies overwhelmingly with bodies such as ICANN that, though not without their flaws, are already multistakeholder in their functioning. To think that principles that should govern the work of these bodies can be formulated or effectively applied without a central involvement of all stakeholders already involved in these groups (stakeholders who often have, it should be said, conflicting views about the way forward) is obviously deeply flawed.

The multistakeholder WGEC is charged with making recommendations on how to fully implement the mandate of enhanced cooperation contained in the Tunis Agenda.

India’s renewed proposal, in this context, to establish a UN body that would privilege governments in the making of international Internet-related public policy was made without any domestic consultation, even if a Multistakeholder Advisory Group had been established by the government precisely for such purposes in August of this year.

For many observers in India, it therefore came as something of a surprise — even more so as Mr. Kapil Sibal, Minister of Communications and Information Technology, has repeatedly stressed over the past year (and as recently as 17 October) the importance of multistakeholderism for effective Internet policy making, and his own commitment to this model.