by Sandeep Bamzai
After Kapil Sibal assured stakeholders in India — industry, civil society, free speech and privacy activists, and academia, etc., that the Government of India will deal with issues related to internet and its governance by engaging all multi-stakeholder groups who contribute to the functioning growth of internet, the External Affairs Ministry has taken a reverse stance at the recently concluded meeting in Geneva under the aegis of the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology Development (UNCSTD).
India is one of 22 countries which form the working group dealing with “enhanced cooperation” relating to global policymaking in the area of internet governance. India has sought a “multilateral body” which would mean just governments with all other stakeholders in a consultative role.
The entire issue of internet governance has remained controversial since 2011 when the Permanent Mission of India in Geneva, without any prior consultation in India (extensively reported by Mail Today in the past) with external stakeholders, had proposed the formation of a UN Committee for Internet Related Policies (UNCIRP). This meant regulating all issues of internet including policymaking and treaties, etc., through the hands of 50 governments who would work under UN, relegating all other stakeholders such as civil society, academia, media, industry, technical community and users into a consultative role. This proposal from India had met with serious criticism globally and in India. UN-CIRP was not only a surprise, but in fact, even within the government, only a handful of officials had insight into this proposal, which intended to move the internet under the control of governments, within the ambit of UN, whose constitution disallows any non-government stakeholder from having a formal role or voice.
The Indian government at the meeting last week resubmitted a version of the UN-CIRP by taking a formal position: “The UN General Assembly could embark on creation of a multilateral body for formulation of international internet related public policies”. Reiterating that governments would be in front and center, making all decisions, with other stakeholders in a consultative role, the India statement emphasised that “The proposed body should include all stakeholders and relevant inter-governmental and international organisations in an advisory capacity, within their respective roles, as identified in Tunis Agenda at the WGIG (Working Group On Internet Governance) report”.
Within India during the last year, there was a palpable shift when Telecom Minister Kapil Sibal, denounced the idea of inter-governmental control of internet, seeking cooperation from all stakeholder groups within India. Kapil Sibal had as recently as October stated that “The way forward is to take a consensual approach where all stakeholders including the government will have an equal say while deciding the institutional framework”. He further emphasised that “creating an inter-governmental group is not a solution because the governments will have their differences. Besides industry forms the crux of cyber-space and without them a feasible policy cannot be conceived”. A practical and pragmatic view.
However, it seems there is a major divide between what the government is telling its citizens in India and what MEA takes to international fora such as the UN. The three-day transcripts of the meeting held in Geneva show that the Indian government had taken the hardest stance, only second to Saudi Arabia.
With a handful of exceptions, the civil society and business representatives were moderate, favouring a multi stakeholder engagement rather than a UN body overseeing things. Brazil was careful to take the middle path. Even in the past, after hosting an IBSA (India Brazil South Africa) meeting on this issue, it had left India’s side in 2011, when India had pushed for inter-governmental control of internet through the UN-CIRP. Brazil, after having made a huge uproar against US surveillance at the UN General Assembly, had itself come under fire last week, for spying on diplomatic targets from US, Russia and Iran.
Experts suggest that even in the area of surveillance such as the ones conducted by NSA in the US, it would be dangerous for an inter-governmental body to make decisions because all governments spy on their citizens to a varying degree, and on international diplomatic targets to a large degree.
Therefore, any discussion within governments on the issue of surveillance will be meaningless unless it covers national surveillance by countries, through phone intercepts of their own citizens, political activists, opposition parties and journalists, etc. This cannot happen meaningfully without the presence of civil society and free speech activists in the inter-governmental dialogue. Any such discussion will also bring India’s Central Monitoring System (CMS) project into the limelight.
In the area of global surveillance, the only path forward for drawing up global guidelines will need to include civil society, free-speech and human-right activists on an equal footing, rather than in a consultative role, with governments making the final decisions.
The issue of “enhanced cooperation” being dealt with in the Geneva meeting was raised in the form of 20 odd questions, to which 67 responses were received. From India, the government responded along with three civil society organisations, whose opinion was split — two is to one. Of these, IT for Change favored an inter-governmental body while Internet Democracy Project and Software Freedom Law Center strongly favored a multi stakeholder arrangement. None from business in India responded to the questionnaire.
Mail Today found that multiple industry groups, telecom and internet associations as well as prominent civil society voices had not been consulted by the Indian government before it took a position which was a near repeat of inter-governmental control of internet and policy making by a UN body.
While in case of India, the double speak between what the UPA is telling its citizens and what the External Affairs Ministry has presented at an international forum has only come to light due to the live availability of transcripts during the UN CSTD meetings last week. Under normal circumstances, it would be impossible for unsuspecting citizens to know how their cyber future is being compromised by a stance that is perhaps the most extreme amongst the 22 countries, favored only by Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran.
Originally published in Mail Today.