By Kim Arora
NEW DELHI: There is no need to get scared about losing internet freedom, at least till January 2015. That’s the view of top telecom policy watchers, who closely monitored the World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) that ended in uncertainty earlier this month in Dubai.
Policy experts say the changes affecting internet users in India, if any, would be slow and minor with little or no changes existing laws and governments largely retaining their current control. The resolutions are not binding and member-states are free to opt out of it. India is yet to ratify the treaty that lays out a broad framework on international co-operation over telecommunication resources.
The ITR (International Telecom Regulations), decided by the ITU were last updated in 1988 when the internet, as we know it today, did not exist. And the hullabaloo was caused by the proliferation of internet in the intervening years had created a lot of complications and misgiving among nation states. The Dubai conference also included alarmed internet evangelists who feared that the meeting would result in UN control of the internet. But with the US, the UK and several other countries vehemently refusing to sign on the dotted line, most decisions have been withheld till January 2015 when the treaty is expected to be ratified.
Says Anja Kovacs of Internet Democracy Project, “India still has to decide whether to sign or not. If India does sign the treaty in the end, the immediate impact on the internet within the country is likely be small, however, since…most provisions now integrated in the ITRs (International Telecom Resolutions) are already part of local laws and regulations in some form or the other.”
Even before the WCIT could begin in Dubai, opinion was polarized on what it could or could not do to internet freedom. Behind closed doors, countries such as Russia and China had been lobbying for a greater control of the internet, via the ITU, which is a part of the United Nations Development Group. Hard proof came with the revelations of a collective called WCIT Leaks. India was reported to be in support of the treaty, finding itself in the company of regimes like Azerbaijan. Sources in the Department of Telecom (DoT) who were present at the Dubai meet said on condition of anonymity that their focus is on equitable distribution of IP addresses in the world through multilateral meetings.
Some countries have argued against the expansion of the ITU’s powers to include the internet, saying it will hamper freedom of expression, free flow of ideas and access to online content with the governments and the UN deciding on an online code of conduct. Google started a “campaign” to mobilize opinion against the inclusion of the internet in the treaty. Several mainstream American publications such as New York Times also approached the resolutions warily. Forbes called it “The Internet Cold War.”
Others believe no real change in online freedoms will come of this treaty, and that control over content will remain largely nationalized rather than be decided by the UN. Milton Mueller, a US-based researcher in the field of “political economy of information and communication” and Harvard law school professor Jack Goldsmith tried to debunk the “hysteria” and “phobia” surrounding the meet and resolutions with their blog posts.
Chinmayi Arun, a professor from the National Law School, Bangalore, was present at the Dubai conference as a civil society representative from India. Assessing the internet implications of the treaty, if and when ratified by India, Arun sees little reason to be worried with even “better access to telecom services to the disabled “as part of a larger bargain”. However, it is not all sweetness and light. Privacy, it appears, is a matter of contention not with the international telecom regulations, but the ITU’s interventions in other areas. “Other activities of the ITU, such as its new standard on deep packet inspection could potentially affect privacy,” says Pranesh Prakash, policy director at the Bangalore-based Center for Internet and Society. Deep packet inspection is a form of electronic surveillance.
The text of the treaty lays out that none of the regulations are applicable on content shared on the internet. Even then, the regulations are not binding, and are applicable only to countries that sign it. And then there are other areas of this treaty that need a closer look.
Prakash feels absence of change has its own downside. “Access to content won’t change much. But neither will increase in access to broadband. These kinds of changes are mostly done at the national level, and it doesn’t make much sense to tackle these internationally except as high-level principles,” he says.