The true test of India’s support for global Internet multistakeholderism lies at home

by Anja Kovacs

India has repeatedly expressed its support for multistakeholder Internet governance at the global level. If India is to make the system work for its interests, it is the implementation of multistakeholderism at the domestic level that now needs to become a priority

Earlier this month, Minister of Communications and Information Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad, while leading a high-level Indian government delegation to the 55th ICANN meeting in Marrakech, Morocco, vocally reconfirmed India’s commitment to the multistakeholder model. Prasad had first announced this important shift in India’s policy on Internet governance to global attention in June 2015, at another ICANN meeting. With nine months having passed since, it is a good time to assess: how much of an impact has the new policy had in practice?

If the intention was to significantly enhance India’s case for its global leadership in the area of Internet governance, the announcement has certainly been a pragmatic move in the right direction. After years of conflicting signals as to what Internet governance model was preferred by the Indian government, the espousal of a clear and unified policy by all departments involved has significantly strengthened India’s profile and weight. Moreover, when India defended multilateral oversight over Internet governance in the past, its staunchest allies generally included Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

At least the US and its western allies – who at present have the greatest control over the Internet and its governance system – were often baffled by both India’s inconsistencies and its preferred company. With India’s current policy, some of that earlier suspicion seems to be dissipating, and though concrete measures are still to follow, a new openness towards India’s concerns seems to have emerged.

But if India wants to really be able to substantially impact the outcomes of global Internet governance, merely paying lip-service to multistakeholderism is not enough. To counter the system’s historical imbalances, which currently favour the West, it is essential that India boldly makes the multistakeholder approach its own. And for that, the Indian government will need to start by adopting a multistakeholder approach to Internet governance in all its facets at the national level.

This is because within a multistakeholder model, a government alone can never swing the debate: it is when it gets the support of other stakeholder groups that its voice becomes a force to reckon with. At present, there are already a substantial number of Indians from all stakeholder groups participating in global Internet governance meetings – many of them well-informed, well-respected and impactful. However, their interactions with the Indian government (and sometimes also with each other) are generally ad hoc and fairly sporadic. Imagine with what magnitude India’s impact could be amplified if these voices were brought in greater alignment, even if not complete agreement.

There are further benefits to developing a multistakeholder approach to Internet governance within India. As many top government officials recognise, for India to genuinely impact global Internet governance outcomes, the country needs to develop greater capacity on a wide range of issues. A multistakeholder structure of dialogue and consultation can make it easier to leverage the expertise that already exists within the country to support such efforts. It can provide a gateway to channel these efforts to the right networks. And it can ensure that as capacity expands and new stakeholders emerge, their knowledge and insights can in turn immediately be tapped into to further strengthen the Internet governance policies and positions of all Indian stakeholders.

Moreover, as regular multistakeholder consultations will also ensure that all angles of an issue are looked at, they will improve the quality of any policies devised, and consequently the trust among various stakeholder groups. Indeed, whether domestically or globally, the most impactful positions and policies are those that have wide support and legitimacy.

Encryption fiasco

The debacle with the draft encryption policy in September 2015, for example, which had to be withdrawn soon after it was released, could thus have easily been avoided if consultation of even a limited but diverse group of stakeholders had taken place beforehand. This example also makes clear that the government would make a big mistake if it would exempt discussions on cybersecurity from a multistakeholder approach. Small businesses, start-ups, users from all backgrounds – they are all impacted by such policies in myriad ways. If India’s cybersecurity policies are to serve the greater public good, these voices need to be heard consistently, too.

Luckily, the time to start developing a domestic approach to multistakeholderism in India might never have been better. As Dr. Govind, former CEO of NIXI, and others have pointed out, to really be able to pull weight in global Internet governance, India needs to shift from being a consumer of the Internet to being a producer of the Internet. That moment seems to finally be arriving. After many years of mostly servicing the needs of the IT industry as it developed in Western countries, observers such as Kiran Jonnalagadda from HasGeek have noted that a growing number of companies in India now have innovation at the heart of their business. In the years to come, the way in which the Internet evolves as it is governed will become increasingly important for these companies.

Moreover, with the tremendous visibility that the TRAI policy processes around net neutrality have received – to an important extent thanks to the remarkable efforts at public education and advocacy by the Save the Internet coalition – civil society and the public at large, too, are now attuned to the importance of Internet governance questions to their lives in ways that we have not seen before.

For now, however, it appears that the government is a long way away from drawing on existing expertise consistently. Barely a day after the ICANN meeting in Marrakech ended, the Lok Sabha passed the Aadhaar Bill in the form of a Money Bill – bypassing not only the public consultation that a firm commitment to multistakeholderism would have warranted, but also the need for both Houses of Parliament to approve the bill, rather than only the Lok Sabha which the government controls.

To be fair, a multistakeholder approach that really serves India cannot be developed overnight and will require a number of important questions to be addressed. Do we need a one-size-fits-all-issues approach, or do we need different models for different issues and different stages of a policy development process? Should we fix the roles of the different stakeholder groups, or is a more flexible approach actually preferable? Does the government get to decide who participates and how, or can stakeholder groups be accorded a say? And importantly, if even in a genuinely open consultation process some voices are absent, how to make sure that they, too, find their way to the table? While these questions may be difficult ones, on many groundwork has already been done by a range of stakeholders in India. It is in the government’s interest, as much as that of all other stakeholder groups, that we start the process of building on this work to develop an Indian approach to multistakeholderism immediately.

Originally published in The Wire here.