On Saturday, 5 November, India hosted the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) 57 meeting in Hyderabad. If the Internet has a backbone, ICANN is it. From its inception in 1998 until 1 October this year, it was based in and controlled by the US. That the first summit after the US ceded control was held in India makes for neat symbolism. But if New Delhi wishes India to have a significant say in global Internet governance going forward—a must—it will have to go beyond mere symbolism.
ICANN’s history is a study in the tensions between traditional state power and the decentralised nature of the Internet. Back in the dark ages of the Internet when only a handful of websites existed, American computer scientist Jon Postel administered the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA). This is the body responsible for delegating and managing domain names and Internet protocol addresses globally—what makes it possible for someone to go to the correct website when they type, say, livemint.com. In 1998, management of IANA was taken over by ICANN, a private sector, non-profit body created for this purpose. But crucially, ICANN answered to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the US Department of Commerce. In essence, the US government controlled vital Internet infrastructure.
This has been a point of contention in recent years. To be fair, successive US governments have used their suzerainty sparingly and fairly. But other states have been understandably unwilling to bank on Washington’s goodwill and ethical fibre in this matter of global security, economic activity and development. India has been one of them. However, its stand has been confused and wrongheaded at various points.
The primary point of contention has been whether a multilateral governance approach—one in which national governments would be the primary stakeholders and agents—or a multi-stakeholder approach that would incorporate a variety of voices from civil society, the private sector and academia, is best suited to succeed the US.
The latter wins out on several fronts. The decentralised, transnational nature of the Internet has underpinned its innovation and economic and developmental benefits. Ringfencing crucial governance issues from the multiple non-state stakeholders that have made it what it is—and worse, subjecting it to the bureaucratic wrangling that is inevitable in any multilateral body—would be highly counterproductive. But, as Arun Mohan Sukumar points out in The Wire, despite then-information technology minister Kapil Sibal paying lip service to multi-stakeholderism in 2012, the previous administration sent confusing signals, pushing at various points for a greater government role in Internet governance.
Thankfully, current IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s unequivocal statement last year about an “Indian vision” for the Internet—one that sees multi-stakeholderism as the only way forward—shows that the Narendra Modi government has settled upon a cohesive, sensible approach. This is a pragmatic decision given that the proponents of a multilateral approach included China and Russia—and under the circumstances, Washington had made it clear it would not cede control of ICANN to an inter-governmental body. The problem, however, is that given India’s track record so far, converting its support for a multi-stakeholder model into an actionable approach that gives it a voice in shaping future outcomes is going to take some doing.
On Saturday, Prasad chided the Indian private sector for not participating in global policymaking processes related to the Internet. He was right as far as it goes. But he failed to mention that Indian involvement in general—including at the governmental level—has been anemic through the years at ICANN summits and other such forums. At a time when the Modi government has explicitly recognised the transformational potential of the Internet—both economically and for quality of governance—via the Digital India initiative, New Delhi cannot afford a low level of engagement with the global policymaking apparatus that will shape its future.
Perhaps the first step to redressing the current state of affairs is looking at the domestic policymaking process in Internet-related issues. A ‘Centre for Communication Governance’ report, Analysing Indian Engagement at Global Internet Governance Institutions 2011-2015 by Puneeth Nagaraj and Aarti Bhavana notes that the small number of civil society, academic and government representatives who have participated in global governance forums so far have shared concerns regarding accountability, legitimacy, diversity and capacity. That’s well and good—except that when it comes to freedom of expression, website blocking, policy issues such as the encryption bill and the geospatial bill, and a multitude of other such issues, successive governments have been unconcerned with the need to engage civil society and technical experts adequately.
The capabilities and willingness to participate in global governance at the international level will not come into existence in a vacuum. They must first be cultivated at the domestic level. The future of the Internet is too important to leave to governments alone.
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