At an Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) summit in Marrakech, Morocco, earlier this month, an important step was taken towards addressing an issue that has taken centre stage in recent years: Internet governance. It is a thorny issue, made thornier yet by opposing tensions—Edward Snowden’s 2013 revelations causing a backlash against perceptions of US control of the Internet’s architecture; growing security concerns about terrorism perpetrated by non-state actors, reiterated last week by telecom minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and underscored in tragic fashion in Brussels; the Internet’s transformative role in economic growth and espousing democratic rights, both dependent on its untrammelled nature. These tensions will not vanish with the upcoming move towards a multi-stakeholder model, championed, among others, by India.

As matters stand, the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA), which dealt with IP addresses, domain names and protocol parameters, is managed by ICANN—a US-registered not-for-profit public-benefit corporation dedicated to keeping the Internet secure, stable and interoperable—under contract with the US department of commerce. In addition, only three out of the 13 root name servers are operated by non-US based companies, and in about half of the rest, the US government has a direct role. The US company Verisign (operator of two of these root name domains) is also the sole generator of the root zone files—the apex of the database used to translate unique names to other identifiers such as IP addresses, and the operator of critical domain names such as .com, .in, .gov, .edu and so forth.

Thus far, Washington has kept ICANN on a long leash, conscious of the role perception plays in credibility. But Snowden changed the calculus; it would have been naïve to expect other governments to remain comfortable with the existing system even though the cyber snooping Snowden revealed didn’t have much to do with ICANN control. In the past, Washington had resisted calls for a more transparent Internet governance system incorporating other voices—but in 2014, it ceded ground, announcing its decision to step away from its oversight role. Marrakech was an important waypoint of the subsequent transition process negotiations. The transition plan is similar to what India had hoped for—a multi-stakeholder model retaining ICANN’s neutrality. But there is no consensus as of yet about the role of the Government Advisory Committee, a crucial component of ICANN’s proposed governance model. The main concern pertains to the role of foreign governments.

And that leads back to the central tension. The Indian stance is unambiguous in its advocacy for accountability towards governments. In Prasad’s words: “While fully endorsing the multi-stakeholder model, the issue of security should also remain in focus, where the government has a very important role to play, as safety and security remains the primary responsibility of the governments." This is a decidedly positive evolution from India’s 2011 proposal at the UN for an intergovernmental body, the Committee on Internet Related Policies. The last thing global Internet governance needs is to be bogged down in the bureaucratic tangle that would ensue.

But what exactly is New Delhi’s understanding of the nature and extent of government’s “very important role" in Internet governance? The best way to gauge that, perhaps, is to look at domestic policies in this regard. They aren’t particularly encouraging. There has been a consistent tendency to be heavy-handed at the expense of individual rights and freedom of expression—the Internet’s guiding principles if it can be said to have any.

One need only look at Section 66A of the IT Act—struck down last year on account of being unconstitutional, but not before it had spawned a host of troubling incidents of citizens being persecuted for speaking against politicians online—from Ambikesh Mahapatra to Aseem Trivedi and Ravi Srinivasan. Other sections of the Act have been used overenthusiastically since. There have been other missteps as well; the department of telecommunications attempted to block 32 websites, including popular video-hosting sites, as they could host content related to ISIS, and as of last year, India blocks more Facebook content than any other country.

These are not the acts of a governing class that has found the appropriate balance between addressing very real security concerns and not compromising the fundamentally open nature of the Internet. Finding that balance is essential—both in a domestic context and if New Delhi is to be effective in its advocacy and role in global Internet governance.

Will the decisions made at the ICANN summit be effective in democratizing Internet governance? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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