Internet governance is an important policy and governance issue that has been raised at international level. Since the World Summit on Internet Society in 2003, nations have called for a transparent, democratic and multilateral governance of the Internet. This is against the current global governance by Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) – a company governed by the US Laws, and accountable to the US government. ICANN is responsible for technical operations of root and domain names infrastructure; it also acts as a transnational governance institution that makes global Internet public policies that impact copyright, privacy, and cybersecurity , which are sovereign interests of the nations.
Internet growth has been explosive over the last two decades. Unprecedented innovation has led to change in individual life and societal intercourse that was unimaginable even in science fiction. Email, instant chat, videocalling, online newspapers, blogs, social media empowering the individual, information exchange across national boundaries with ineffective censorship, irrelevance of distance, rise of communities, and unlimited freedom of expression. New platforms have emerged to access the Internet, especially through mobile telephony. Economies have grown, with 4-10% of GDP being attributed to ICT in various countries, even in the developing world. Critical infrastructures such as communications, banking, power, transport have become dependent on cyberspace. Militaries use cyberspace for gaining advantage in the physical world. Cyber crimes too are taking the world by a storm. Cyberattacks, especially on critical infrastructures, are threatening nations, which are worried about their inability to respond to such attacks because of difficulties in attribution. Such are the multiple dimensions of cyberspace. It should come as no surprise that nations are concerned about Internet governance.
Cyberspace has become an important national asset, a tool for economic growth. But it is also part of global commons, like the other global commons - land, sea, air, space. It has come to be recognised as fifth domain since it is important for national security. Unilateral control of the domain, non-transparency in the current governance regime, and exclusion of other countries from global governance of the Internet will likely harm commercial, economic and security interests of nations in the long run.
Proposals for democratisation and internationalisation of Internet governance are not new. Even the European Union in September 2005, publicly called for changes in the ICANN regime, to build a “new cooperation model” at “the level of principles”. The arguments and debate have since centered on “a choice between an Internet free from government interference and an Internet burdened by, UN-based governmental controls” since the latter “would give to authoritarian governments such as Iran, China or Syria power over the Internet”, as articulated by Prof. Milton Mueller. No wonder the current debate in India too centres around content regulation by the government.
What is the relevance of all this to ITU? It was in the US in 1970s, that “basic” telecommunications services were separated from “value-added” services that involved data processing and networked computers. The former continued to be regulated as a common carrier, while the latter were left unregulated. This regulatory distinction has been largely adopted by the world along with liberalisation. But the catch now is that even voice is digitised and the switching of the voice traffic also relies on “data processing”. Does the “basic” telecommunications service now become a “value-added” service? But then telephony is already deregulated!
In its attempts to create new ITRs, is the ITU trying to control the Internet, and encourage censorship? ITU Constitution Article 34, section 2 states the following: “Member States also reserve the right to cut off, in accordance with their national law, any other private telecommunications which may appear dangerous to the security of the State or contrary to its laws, to public order or to decency.” Nation-states are thus already empowered to censor communications in national interest. Can any new ITRs be more “draconian” than this? But the western countries succeeded in stalling the recently concluded WCIT at Dubai precisely on these non-existing grounds, while the issue of who controls the Internet has been successfully kept under the wraps. Its focus is on keeping the Internet away from the oversight of ITU, and restricting it to telephony, which might stand deregulated. ITU will have no role!
There are no straight forward answers to these questions. It seems that ITRs of ITU and the battle for democratisation of Internet governance through changes in the current regime of oversight of ICANN will play out in the international arena for a long time. As it will take long to build global consensus, India has to take a well thought policy direction, both on ITU and ICANN. There is no doubt that transparent, democratic and inclusive governance of the Internet is in the interest of the industry and country. We must push at the global level to improve Internet governance by involving nation-states, but clearly recognising the important role of the private sector, standards bodies, civil society and academia in the multi-stakeholder approach to governance. However, oversight by an existing UN organisation like ITU should not be supported, since the benefits of self-regulation, led by the private sector, through technical standards bodies like IETF, are essential for innovation. While ICANN, with proven experience in operations and technical standards, may continue to operate the infrastructure, all policy making should be led by nation-states in consultation with multi-stakeholders that include technical standards bodies, industry, academia and civil society, through a new entity in place of the present Government Advisory Committee (GAC). This new entity should oversee ICANN instead of the US government alone. Perhaps nations with largest Internet user base such as China and India, along with the US, and a few other western nations, and a couple of countries representing Africa and Latin America, should oversee the Internet governance with the present ICANN reduced to technical operations of DNS.
(The writer is CEO, Data Security Council of India – a NASSCOM initiative. The views are personal)