Anja Kovacs, director of the Internet Democracy Project, talks to Nidhi Gupta about the evolving debates around the Internet, governance and the right to free speech.

Q. What is the Internet Democracy Project? Can you tell us about its origins?

A. The IDP, started in 2011, is part of Point of View, a women’s rights organisation that specifically works on representing the perspectives of women in the media. Increasingly, the work of Point of View was also moving to the Internet and technology became really important. The IDP started as the free speech and the Internet angle of PoV’s work. We decided to give it a name of its own because the issues that we address end up going beyond just women’s rights.

Q. What is the scope of the project?

A. The starting point for IDP too was the defence of freedom of expression on the Internet. We look at this in a very broad way. Access to technology, surveillance, hate speech, intellectual property rights are all free speech issues for us. Over the two years that we’ve existed, the whole debate about how the Internet is run and governed, how much control governments both at the national and international level have, has become increasingly important. How this debate is decided will have important bearings on the issues of freedom of expression.

Q. IDP, in all its research work and advocacy, seems to have an anti-regulation stance. Is that correct? Where does this stem from?

A. This depends on what kind of regulation you’re talking about. If you look at intellectual property rights, there’s a lot of regulation but it does little to promote freedom of expression. Then, our demand becomes one for different regulation, not necessarily less.

We work on issues on online abuse that women face. Section 66A of the Information Technology Act became infamous after two girls were arrested in Mumbai for posting comments on Facebook questioning the shutdown on the city after Bal Thackeray’s demise. Mr Kapil Sibal, then the Telecom Minister, said that the law was what it was and that we needed new regulation that took women’s rights into consideration. A lot of women’s rights activists at the time dismissed this saying there were other laws that could be used in this case, and that Section 66A should be scrapped. We thought that if the minister recognises that women face a particular problem, we’re not going to simply overlook it. The question is, is this the correct approach?

So we conducted research that looked at the strategies that women use on the Internet when they face abuse. The law, it emerged, is only the very last resort, mostly because the police are often not receptive of women’s complaints and families are concerned about going to the police.

There is, however, a slight danger in terming any abuse faced on the Internet as violence against women. The definition of violence includes abuse, but in practice if you tweet a political opinion and are then subject to name-calling, it isn’t exactly the same thing. To put domestic violence and online abuse in the same category collapses the boundaries between the two forms and responses to them. One of the bloggers that we spoke to for our research observed that everyone kept likening abuse online to that on the streets. But a crucial difference, she said, was that on the Internet, the abuser is not standing next to you. You have the same weapons — a keyboard — and this can be used just as effectively to play mind games, except that women lose it before they start. I thought this was a very important reminder to not give away our weapons. I’m not saying you must never go to the police, but the stress needs to be on grading responses depending on the situation.

Q. What is your take on the evolving debate about global Internet governance?

A. We feel that this is important because it will shape how much control and access governments can allow/​restrict on the Internet. The Indian government has been very involved in these debates and they have proposed the setting up of a new UN body that will be responsible for global internet policy-making, which, again, we think is too rough a brush to handle the issue with. The two big differences we have with this stance are, firstly, that governance of the Internet is not centralised at the moment. This is a good thing. It is important to look for people already working within the ambit of the UN on issues of things like human rights and violation of privacy to look into this too, because they have the necessary expertise. The Internet is not an issue, but a space — and you have common issues like health, free speech and human rights in both the online and the offline world.

Secondly, the degree of government control on these processes is problematic. It’s clear that if we’re to have a global treaty on privacy, it will have to be a multi-lateral treaty where governments will negotiate. This is, however, very different from having a multi-stakeholder model, where everyone who is affected by the policies comes to the table. If a multi-lateral treaty is the order of the day, I’m not sure if we want only governments doing the negotiating because it isn’t at all clear how much they respect our privacy. The Indian government wants the UN body to be a multi-government body, while we would turn it around and say that it needs to be a multi-stakeholder body.

Q. How would a global treaty for governance of the Internet work in the long run, keeping in mind that users from different contexts have different approaches to the space, subject to cultural and socio-political nuances?

A. I’m not saying that the treaty would be the best way forward, but there has to be some sort of global agreement on how to deal with such issues. For instance, in the case of privacy, it is important to enshrine a government’s responsibility towards its citizens just as much as it is to people outside of that country. At the moment, certain governments clearly think that these restrictions do not exist. The Internet is a global resource, and things like Facebook and Twitter would see similar amounts of usage in different contexts. If a government thinks that it is alright for them to practice surveillance on all the people who use a certain feature because the business is located in their country, then your use in India is affected by the absence of a global agreement on the issue.

Another example is jurisdiction. When the exodus of people from the northeast from Bangalore started happening, the Indian government made certain requests for data from the US government. They had to do this because that’s where the service is based and is under the jurisdiction of another country. Certain requests are turned down because there is no agreement on what an emergency is defined as. A certain level of transparency and accountability, checks and balances put in through civil society agencies — these are the kinds of things that better processes to arrive at a structure of global Internet governance can achieve, all the while keeping in mind cultural specificities.

Q. What do you think are the other big issues that a global solution should perhaps be looking at?

A. One of the big issues that I think gets uneven attention is intellectual property rights on the Internet. India has a fairly progressive stance on the issue, but there is enormous pressure from Europe and the US to weaken those protections all the time and to enforce existing laws much more strongly. The instance of Oxford and Cambridge Press University cracking down on the DSE photocopy guy is a good example of how debates and discussion online begins to affect policy offline too. I don’t think publishing houses would’ve dared to take a copy guy to court 10 years ago, but they seem to have gathered courage in the current climate where bi-lateral trade agreements between the US and EU, the SOPA-PIPA debates have encouraged the thinking that copyright structures need to exist as they did earlier, and must be even more stringent.

The other big issue that is up and coming is Net neutrality. There are pressures working to create an atmosphere where ISPs can manage the traffic and some are arguing that this should include the possibility for companies to pay ISPs to privilege their traffic. It’s a really horrible thing to happen to the Internet, because the innovation that the Internet stands for will come to an end. It is already hard to break through the monopolies that companies like Facebook and Google have created, but a move to this end will transform the Internet to a hyper-commercial space where alternative groups like NGOs, start-ups and young enterprises will remain on the second rung.

Correction by the Internet Democracy Project: Not women’s rights activists, but Internet activists argued that section 66A should simply be scrapped, without examining in depth the consequences of doing so.

Originally published in Sunday Guardian.