NEW DELHI: Multi-stakeholder or multi-lateral — two words encapsulating diametrically opposite views on internet governance stands at the heart of a raging debate across the globe. At the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation (WGEC) meeting in Geneva last month, India suggested forming a multi-lateral UN body to co-ordinate on internet governance issues. And several activists feel that is not the right way forward.

Multi-stakeholder control over the world wide web means parties other than governments, which include the tech community, academia, businesses and civil society. In a multi-lateral arrangement, only the governments will be the decision-makers and every other stakeholder barring the state, is relegated to a purely advisory role. Simply put, the choice is between total state control over the internet or a more democratic set-up where other sections of society are also represented.

Civil society and businesses are concerned that being relegated to an advisory role rather than a decision-making one could lead to disregarding or dumping their inputs.

Everyone must have a seat at the table,” says Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). If you are designing a new model, it is important that it is as inclusive as possible. That will create better decisions. It will also discourage back-door bargaining between governments,” says Anja Kovacs of the Internet Democracy Project.

The internet architecture has always been controlled by the US. The demand for a more democratised set-up, where other countries also have a voice, started in early 2000s. In 2005, a consensus document, Tunis Agenda, had been signed under the aegis of the UN. It laid out much of the terms of the debate around internet governance, including the focus on enhanced cooperation and the need for a multi-stakeholder model.

In 2011, India put forward a detailed proposal for a multi-lateral UN body that was widely criticised by activists and business bodies at home. In Geneva this November, India’s answer to a question on implementing enhanced cooperation” in a WGEC questionnaire, went like this: A suitable multilateral, transparent and democratic mechanism must be created where governments, on an equal footing, may carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet and public policy issues pertaining to coordination and management of critical Internet resources, in consultation with all other stakeholders.”

Ajay Kumar of the Department of Electronics and Communication Technology (DeitY), was a part of the delegation representing India at Geneva. The DeitY falls under the union ministry of communication and information technology. Kumar told TOI, that while there is a relook at the 2011 proposal, India has been following the Tunis Agenda when it comes to enhanced cooperation between different countries and other stakeholders.

Nonetheless, Parminder Jeet Singh of the NGO IT for Change has supported the government position at the WGEC meeting. The two other civil society bodies from India at Geneva wanted a multi-stakeholder model. Singh feels that the proposal may have an important role to play at a later stage when real political talk shapes up”. We don’t agree that a Google or an IT for Change should vote in the decision-making about actual public policies. We understand the fear (behind such an arrangement) but we prefer that public policy decisions at global level remain with governments as they are legitimate representatives of the people,” he says.

However, Sunil Abraham, executive director of the Center for Internet and Society, warns against the governmental tendency to centralize and for being opaque. He also feels that a single model, whether multilateral or multi-stakeholder, will not work. Every model must change with every issue being brought to the table, he says. For instance, something like controlling child pornography, will need one kind of model to deal with. The same won’t work when dealing with hate speech,” Abraham points out.

Activists are hoping that the Brazil global multi-stakeholder meeting in April next year will take the issue of democratised internet governance forward.

Originally published in Times of India.