The controversy around internet governance

The controversy around internet governance

What is internet governance?

Internet Governance is the development and application of shared principles, norms, rules, decision-making procedures, and programs that shape the evolution and use of the Internet.

As of now, the Internet is a globally distributed network comprising many voluntarily interconnected autonomous networks. It operates without a central governing body.

However, to maintain interoperability, all technical and policy aspects of the underlying core infrastructure and the principal namespaces are administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), headquartered in Marina del Rey, California. ICANN oversees the assignment of globally unique identifiers on the Internet, including domain names, Internet Protocol (IP) addresses, application port numbers in the transport protocols, and many other parameters. This creates a globally unified namespace that is essential for the global reach of the Internet. ICANN is governed by an international board of directors drawn from across the Internet technical, business, academic, and other non-commercial communities.

The need for multilateral internet governance

The Internet is a major force today, restructuring our economic, social, political and cultural systems. The past few decades of internet evolution has changed the nature of the World Wide Web totally. From a public network of millions of digital spaces, the internet is now largely a conglomeration of a few proprietary spaces. (A few websites like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon together make much of the Internet used by most people today.)

At present the internet is either U.S.-controlled, or subject to the policies of rich country groups like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Global Internet governance can be seen in two parts and both the parts are being controlled in highly lop-sided manner.

  1. Technical governance which prominently includes the governance of critical Internet resources. The two most critical Internet resources are the authoritative root zone server and Internet names and addresses system, which are managed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), under contract with the U.S. Department of Commerce. ICANN, as a U.S. non-profit body, is subject to U.S. laws in every possible way. Further, a few United States-based companies increasingly have monopoly control over most of the Internet. The U.S. government itself controls some of the most crucial nodes of the global digital network.
  2. Wider public policies concerning various economic, social, cultural and political issues. The other area of global governance relates to wider public policy issues like the role and responsibilities of Internet intermediaries (like search engines and social networking sites), e-commerce, cross-border data flows, intellectual property and access to knowledge, trade and tax, online media, cultural diversity, privacy, security, human rights, etc. At present, it is either U.S. law which applies globally by default as most monopoly Internet companies are U.S.-based, or the policy frameworks are developed by rich country clubs like the OECD. There is no reason why such policy principles and guidelines should not be developed by all countries sitting together in the first place, which is what is proposed the U.N. Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) will do. Developed countries, chiefly the U.S., are using the power of their monopoly Internet companies and other kinds of strategic advantages to shape the Internet as per their narrow interests — economic, political, security and cultural.

Other issues

  • With increased securitisation of the Internet, the single point control issue has become even more severe for developing countries. The U.S. has been mulling what has been called the Internet Kill Switch Legislation, which could have application across the world. The U.S. has not hesitated to use the domain name system services for extra-territorial enforcement of its intellectual property laws. In this background, the concerns of other countries about U.S. control on the critical infrastructure of the Internet are quite legitimate.
  • Rich countries have managed to keep developing countries away from the seats of governance of the Internet. For this purpose, they use many different strategies. To many developing countries, they sell the proposition that poorer countries should focus on the immense developmental potential of the Internet, rather than the question of its global governance. To global civil society, the rich countries have somewhat successfully been able to sell an image of itself as the protector of freedoms and liberties on the Internet, chiefly freedom of expression, and that of developing countries as anti-democratic and retrograde, thus arguing that the latter should not be allowed any significant position in Internet governance.
India’s proposal for internet regulation at United Nations

A statement made by India in the 66th Session of the United Nations General Assembly in October, 2011 under the Agenda Item ‘Information and Communication Technology for Development’ asked United Nations Commission for Science and Technology Development (CSTD) to establish a Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP) under the UN aegis.

The proposal is as per the mandate enshrined in the Tunis Agenda of Enhanced Cooperation and is accordingly a step forward towards the democratization of the global internet related public policy issues. The proposal was in consultation with China, Brazil and South Africa.

India reiterated this position at the session of United Nations Commission for Science and Technology Development (CSTD) on 18th May 2012 in Geneva.

The main points of the Indian proposal

The main points of the Indian proposal are as follows.

  1. India supports formulating internet regulation and governance at the level of United Nations.
  2. The move by India would mean that control of social media corporations such as Twitter, Google and Facebook would finally wrest in hands of United Nations, and its member nations.
  3. A UN committee, as proposed by India would also step in cases of dispute resolution between governments and Internet companies. As envisaged by India’s Ministry of External Affairs, the United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) would undertake arbitration and dispute resolution, in scenarios such as the present where rumours are being spread via internet on violence in North East and Myanmar. India is of the opinion that the solution to this problem (of objectionable content online) should be a permanent one.
  4. India views it as a step forward towards the democratisation of the global internet related public policy issues.
  5. India’s CIRP proposal is more multi-stakeholder than any global governance body which deals with substantive policy issues. In this regard, the Indian CIRP’s design is rather innovative and progressive, whereby four advisory committees will meet back to back with the inter-governmental core committee and give regular inputs to it. Additionally, the CIRP is supposed to have organic connections with the multi-stakeholder open U.N. Internet Governance Forum.
  6. India clarifies that its proposal should not be viewed as an attempt by governments to take over or regulate and circumscribe the internet.
Position taken by other countries

India has been pushing for global internet governance at the level of UN, which has been criticized by some countries and advocacy groups. In July 2012, UN Human Rights Council in Geneva passed its first resolution on Internet freedom with a call for all nations to support individual and human rights online, despite opposition by India and China, which want a UN committee on internet governance.

The subject has assumed controversial proportions for two reasons:

  1. The countries are divided in their positions
  2. The issues have split national governments vis-a-vis their own telecom and Internet industry, civil society and academia in many cases.

The issue is likely to come for discussion and voting in the forthcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT) in Dubai.

How well did you understand the issue? Assess yourself.

Question 1 | (250 Words): What are the issues of concern from the Indian point of view with respect to the Internet governance? Discuss the stand taken by India in this regard and its salient features.

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