India’s Proposals To UN For Internet Censorship Is A Dangerous Idea

India’s proposal at the UN in October 2011, seeking the formation of an inter-governmental, 50-member body – Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) – is perhaps one of the worst ideas that the government has paraded in the last few years.

As someone who is involved with telecommunications, technology and the internet for nearly two decades, I’ve tried to review this proposal from every possible angle. Apart from the evidence at hand, it is clear that the timing and the language of both the IT (Intermediary Guidelines) Rules of April 2011 – to govern the internet domestically – and the proposal under question six months later in October 2011, shows the government’s intent to control and capture the internet space. Without question, the Indian Government is spooked not just by the Arab Spring – the overthrow of dictators in Libya and Egypt through use of the internet and social media - but equally, a huge mass of humanity that collected within minutes – whether it was outside the Tihar Jail to seek the release of Anna Hazare or at the Ram Lila Grounds to participate in the anti-corruption movement. Regardless of the fate of that movement, the government’s fear that the internet and social media can start a wave of protests that can quickly go national, is the main reason driving this undemocratic proposal of government control over the internet. Now, a brief look at why this proposal is a bad idea.

It’s for the wrong reasons. It is nothing but a government body that would be run by Joint Secretaries or Ambassadors or Telecom Ministers.  The objectives stated in the proposal are both weak and easily achievable under the existing system. No doubt, the proposal is cleverly worded with generous use of pluralistic language. In reality, it promotes a dangerous idea which has the UN and control stamped all over it.

The solution is worse than the problem. Apart from the need to exercise control over the internet, and by extension, freedom of expression, free speech and privacy, the real reason being stated in undertones is that the current multi-stakeholder body – ICANN, which governs the internet is located out of the US and has close relationships with the US government. No evidence has been provided as to how the location of ICANN or its relationship with the US government hurts India. Regardless, I am the first to vote that no single government should have such proximity with the governance of the internet. We must find a way to revolutionize, improve and expand the multi-stakeholder nature of ICANN. But to move from being under the influence of one government to a structure where 50 government bureaucrats and politicians get to decide the future of the internet is like going from a situation that makes us uncomfortable, to one which has the potential of killing the innovation, growth, and even the internet as we know it today.

The proposal is self-serving. Rather than strengthening the proposal by bringing in citizen groups, civil society and academia, the proposal hopes to put government officials in the core role of deciding the way forward, based on the advice that they receive from other stakeholders. In effect, they could write treaties and bind India to them, and later, we could be subject to those as a signatory. If an issue of defining free speech or privacy was to be discussed with countries such as China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, Uzbekistan, Burma, Zimbabwe and Sudan, then you can well imagine what that language would read and how far away it could be from our constitutional rights. Once committed, international treaties will become virtually impossible to dislodge. Even the Parliament could have a hard time taking effective steps undoing such a disaster.

The proposal is lazy and unimaginative. From all evidence since the Tunis agenda of 2005 was announced, little or no effort has been made by India to reform the existing structure. It has middle and junior level officers participating in international forums. Those who drive the agenda send in senior secretary-level officers who are savvy, well-read and confident. In spite of having a representative on the board of directors of ICANN, the Indian government has done little to work with him. The Chinese, who have also sought government control, are working paralelly to get their people elected to some of the most important positions around the world – the oldest trick in the book. India, on the other hand, remains lazy in its approach and unimaginative in its proposal. Its partner countries, Brazil and South Africa, have the worst human rights records till the 90s. If the Indian government can’t even come up with an imaginative proposal, how do you expect them to manage the internet when they have a seat at the high table? They are eminently unqualified to take on the job they aspire to do.

The proposal is against India’s character and constitution. The plan to subject the internet to a 50-member inter-governmental body hurts India’s reputation as a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and democratic society with an open economy and an abiding culture for pluralism. It’s against everything that we stand for. Even Pakistan refuses to associate itself with such a disastrous proposal.

The proposal is against the interest of 800 million mobile and 100 million internet users and counting. The very thought of having the government control the internet or supervise it in any form goes against the concept of the internet as a vehicle for openness, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, diversity, inclusiveness, creativity, free and unhindered access to information and knowledge, global connectivity, innovation and socio-economic growth. Even if India were to argue that we are committed to these ideals, there is no reason to believe that other government officials will do the same. Remember, only 30% of the countries of the world have real democracies. The rest range from periodic democracies and flawed democracies to authoritarian rules. These governments will be represented in the proportion of their membership (not population) on the 50-member council. They will make the policies and write the treaties. They have no obligation to go by India’s values or constitutional provisions, but in the end, the government can use that camouflage to attack our freedom in ways that are currently prohibited. If it sounds scary, just think of the manner in which the IT Rules have been handled, or how Anna Hazare was labelled when he got on the wrong side of the government. Moreover, once such a treaty is in place, it will run across governments – current and future – so anyone could misuse it.

The proposal smacks of hypocrisy. For a proposal that promises to advance the cause of democracy, pluralism, inclusion, openness and transparency, very little has been demonstrated in reality. Almost no one in the country knew that this proposal has been made behind our backs. There was little or no consultation whatsoever. The Telecom Ministry has engaged in half a dozen open houses since January 2011, but not a whisper about the fact that such a critical document was being submitted at the UN. No substantive discussion in the Parliament either. What possibly could be the motive of keeping a proposal that the government believes will advance the cause of democracy and user interest, secret from those whose cause it pretends to advance?

The proposal goes against the basic engineering architecture and timely decision-making required for internet governance. A centrally controlled, top-heavy, inter-governmental framework is fundamentally against the open and inclusive architecture of the internet. No government should be allowed to dominate this space. An inter-governmental body is much worse, which can make engineering and economic decisions that need to be made quickly, virtually impossible. This is exactly what the internet does not need. Critical decisions relating to the growth and the expansion of the internet will certainly be politically paralyzed when subject to a discussion, or worse still, a treaty between member states that have no ideology to share. Just look at the UN’s overall track record for building consensus even on simple issues like halting wars or controlling bloodshed. Can you imagine bureaucrats in charge of the internet?

The proposal is about control, and control in the hands of those who lack competence. Without question, this proposal is about controlling the internet. Or else, the government would have sought an option to expand the multi-stakeholder arrangement or perhaps even argued that the government should get an equal seat along with the other stakeholders. But to alter that arrangement that has added 2.5 billion internet users so far with half a million being added each day, and moving it to government control, is about controlling the internet. Worse still, even with the best intentions, the bureaucrats are ill-qualified to handle this job.

Lastly, the government’s proposal pretends that it is based on the Tunis Agenda of 2005. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Tunis Agenda had multi-stakeholderism written all over it. The government is purposely misrepresenting the sections that it is citing. Paras 34, 35, 56, 58, 59, and especially 61 and 69 do not bear out the need for an inter-governmental body to oversee internet governance with all other stakeholders moved into a peripheral role. In fact, the Tunis Agenda is about inclusion of the government in decision-making and recognition of an appropriate role by the government, not the exclusion of key stakeholders, with the government being in charge.

This is a cause worth fighting against. This has the potential of affecting this generation and most certainly the future generations. The government must be persuaded on rationale and logic to withdraw its proposal, reconsider the options, subject it to a wide consultation within the country, and then lead from the front. US influence should be the least of our worries. The withdrawal of the proposal will be a sign of strong introspection and not weakness. Internet users, bloggers, and most importantly the media, must understand that what seems like an innocuous statement in the UN today has the potential of completely altering their source of communication and access to information and knowledge within a short period of time. This is a dog that should not be allowed to bark.

This article appeared in the Tehelka magazine in the issue dated 02 June, 2012

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