An Assault On Freedom

India’s proposal in UN for government control of internet endangers free speech and privacy

If accepted, India’s cleverly-worded proposal for a 50-member inter-governmental body to control the internet will make theInternet Rules 2011 and the skirmish with Google and Facebook seem like a walk in the park. Engage before it’s too late.

If you were even a tad bit worried about the government’s intentions to censor free speech by controlling the internet and monitoring your access to the web through a vague and draconian legal framework – ‘IT Rules, 2011’, followed by an attempt to pre-screen content on Google and Facebook – you haven’t seen nothing yet.

In mid-2011, the success of the internet and social media in bringing down dictatorships in Egypt and Libya was being celebrated, and the speed at which anti-corruption protestors were collecting at various locations in June through December 2011 had dazzled citizens around the world. In this background, and without any prior consultation or as much as a whisper in the Parliament, the Indian government moved a proposal at the 66th session of the UN General Assembly on 26th October 2011, proposing a 50-member inter-governmental (read bureaucrats and politicians) UN Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP). This body would control the internet, regulate it through treaties, and oversee all bodies responsible for the technical and operational functioning of the internet. CIRP is proposed to be served, funded and reporting to the UN General Assembly. In short, all internet control in the hands of a 50-member body run, funded, owned and reporting to the governments of the world. In the process, India proposed to change on its head the current multi-stakeholder internet governance process, which has brought on 2.5 billion internet users to the net thus far, with half a million new users joining each day.

The reason? It is argued that the current governance process is too close to the US government and within the jurisdiction of US law. While this system has served the internet users’ needs reasonably well thus far, it is certainly far from ideal. No one government should have excessive influence, but that should mean strengthening the multi-stakeholder governance process with civil society, media, private sector, governments, international organizations, academics, engineers, and students all playing their respective rightful role, rather than handing internet governance over to a bunch of governments – a large majority of which are imperfect or occasional democracies or downright authoritarian rules. Worried already? Here is what else is wrong with India’s proposal.

CIRP, with 50 governments in control, will undoubtedly have representations from governments such as China, Iran, Bahrain, Russia, Sudan, Uzbekistan, Cuba, and Kazakhstan – to name a few. Imagine writing a common treaty which will regulate the internet and govern censorship, including issues such as website blocking and access for Indian citizens based on what these countries consider “appropriate”. In short, imagine negotiating definitions of free speech, freedom of expression and privacy – values that our Constitution guarantees as fundamental rights – with authoritarian states – some with a track record of enhanced internet censorship, web blocking, and in extreme cases, death sentences for netizens and bloggers.

Secondly, internet governance is a highly complex issue – run through a multi-stakeholder model which derives significant benefits from equal access to decision-making. A top-down, centralized international governmental overlay is fundamentally against the very architecture of the internet. No government, let alone an inter-governmental body, can dream of making engineering and economic decisions in lightning-fast internet time. The proposal will be hurtful as engineering and business decisions relating to the growth of the internet become politically paralyzed within a global regulatory body.

While the proposal claims to advance transparency and democracy by shifting internet governance into the hands of 50 government officers, not a single open house or consultation with the multi-stakeholder groups took place before the submission of the proposal in October 2011. Further, imagine advancing the cause of democracy by moving 50 government bureaucrats in the centre of a decision-making process which they are entirely unqualified and ill-equipped to do, while moving the existing multi-stakeholder groups – academicians, civil society, engineers, private sector and international organizations – into the periphery, into an advisory role. Research shows that India’s efforts as a part of the government advisory council to the current internet governance process has been dismal. It is ill-represented and made no effort to strengthen and improve the existing process before an attempt to destroy it through a bazooka called the CIRP. The Government is perhaps trying to piggyback on some anti-US bashing and project itself as the saviour of global Internet governance, never mind its abysmal policy failure of internet and broadband penetration vis-à-vis the success of mobile telephony.

Finally, in spite of cautions, the Indian government, during meetings in Geneva last month on the issue of internet governance, persisted with their proposal for inter-governmental control of the internet. This time, India’s statement paraded India’s proposal as advancing the mandate enshrined in the Tunis Agenda, 2005. A simple but careful and perhaps two readings of “India’s Statement proposing UN Committee for Internet Related Policy – UN, New York, October 2011”alongside “Tunis Agenda for the Information Society – WSIS, 2005”will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. Every para of the Tunis Agenda invoked in India’s proposal rebels against the India’s claims. The Tunis Agenda, finalized by over 19,000 participants representing the widest ever multi-stakeholder group and in all of its 122 paras does not even remotely suggest government oversight of the internet, leave alone the formation of a 50-member inter-governmental body. If this proposal is accepted, it will permanently change the internet that we have known and worse still, what the future generations will see of it. The internet is neither owned by governments nor should it be regulated by any – including the US. If accepted, the proposal will make the government’s misadventure with the IT Rules, 2011 and the skirmish with Google and Facebook look like a walk in the park.

Everyone who cares about the internet as a symbol of openness, democracy, diversity, inclusiveness, creativity, and unhindered access to information and knowledge must engage and decide for themselves. Any attempt to expand the government’s power over the internet – however incremental, seemingly innocuous or pretending to advance democracy – should be turned back. The UN will decide on this crucial issue by November / December 2012 at meetings to be held in Dubai. Before that, there is a need to urge the government to withdraw its proposal, seek wide and transparent stakeholder consultations and then resubmit an enlightened plan which can safeguard the internet – perhaps the one invention that has impacted our access to information, knowledge, and free speech more than any other.

This article appeared in the Times of India on June, 13th, 2012

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