External Affairs

India Watches Silently as a Battle to Control the Internet Unfolds

Plaque at the ICANN head office in Del Rey, California. Credit: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons

Plaque at the ICANN head office in Del Rey, California. Credit: Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons

The Interpreter, Sydney Pollack’s racy 2005 political thriller, features a scene in which Sean Penn, a US secret service agent, accuses Nicole Kidman, a United Nations official, of wanting an African dictator “dead”. Kidman parries the allegation, saying she “wouldn’t mind if he were ‘gone’”. “Same thing,” argues Penn. “No it isn’t,” she replies. “If dead and gone were the same thing, there would be no UN”.

Kidman’s wry line is a reference to how many in the United States see the UN: an institution that is well past its shelf date, but which continues to play an outsize role in international relations. On the frontier themes in global politics – climate change, intellectual property rights and international trade – the Obama administration has preferred to court nations bilaterally, rather than navigate the weary corridors of Turtle Bay. Instruments like the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) have firmed up legal principles, limiting the flexibility one country has, no matter how powerful, to set the agenda overnight.

Beyond ICANN

In contrast, it was expected internet governance would be a less prickly concern. There are no agreements to manage internet infrastructure or regulate the conduct of state and non-state actors in cyberspace. Despite several attempts, UN member states have not been able to bridge their differences and negotiate such a global treaty. Meanwhile, the ownership and control of critical internet resources continues to rest within the United States: the Domain Name System is run by the California-based corporation ICANN, the global discourse on digital access, privacy and IP protection is today driven by US-based companies, and seven of the 13 root servers – the original and authoritative directories for top-level domain names and their IP addresses – are located within its borders. The power to make changes to the content of these servers is legally vested with the US Department of Commerce.

Leaning on this favourable mix of political, historic, economic and institutional factors, the US has sought to steer the internet governance debate away from the UN. Washington has aggressively pushed the case for “multistakeholderism” – an untested but appealing idea that businesses, technical experts and civil society should have an equal say in making global internet policies – by raising the spectre of inter-governmental control of the web. For all its efforts, though, the US has not been able to wish away the United Nations’ role. The UN simply refuses to be “gone”.

Earlier this month, the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) set in motion a four-month review of the role that the internet has played so far in global development. The CSTD has been tasked by the UN General Assembly with assessing whether information and communication technologies (ICT) have aided “internationally agreed development objectives, including the Millennium Development Goals.” This review process has not appeared out of the blue – it is the culmination of a 10-year effort by the UN to promote the quick and equitable spread of technology and its benefits. Between June and September, preparatory groups will evaluate whether stated goals have been met, and forward their report to the UNGA. Heads of state will then convene in New York at the end of the year to discuss and record their observations on this report. It is possible that this meeting could even end in an “outcome document”, making it the first international declaration on internet-related policies at the highest level.

Downside of US control

Internet governance is only one of the subjects of this review, but the political attention it receives in December will be unprecedented. Governments will likely seize the opportunity to highlight their concerns over US control of the internet. Brazil and Germany could rake up the Snowden revelations once again, to push their continued and stellar efforts that led the UN to recognize a “right to privacy in the digital age” in 2013. At the summit, Russia will denounce (again) unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on internet companies in the Crimea, highlighting the risks of leaving the Domain Name System to supervision by one country. Iran, keen to invigorate its economy in the wake of a nuclear agreement with the P5+1 group, may call for a new internet regime to undercut the Obama administration’s lever on foreign investment in the IT sector. China, whose companies are already beating US internet giants at their own game, may stress its “developmental” needs that require relaxed IP laws to promote the digital economy.

The big question is, what will India do?

The prospect of governments convening behind closed doors to discuss or articulate internet policies is not altogether comforting. Countries that do not have a promising record of protecting human rights online will claim a stake in the DNS with a view to regulate content. That said, there is near consensus – even among its European Union allies – that US oversight of critical internet infrastructure must end. Political compulsions have forced the US’s hand in relegating oversight of the IANA functions – the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority is responsible for making changes to the root zone, publishing internet protocols and assigning scarce IP addresses – to a “multi-stakeholder” body by September 30, 2015. But if this transition fails to meet the requirements of the international community, the possibility that a UN entity will emerge a strong contender to articulate internet policies remains real.

India’s stakes

So far, the IANA transition process has failed to live up to its promise of democratising internet governance. Post-September proposals currently on the table aim to transfer powers currently held by the US government to ICANN. Subject only to US law, ICANN is not accountable legally or politically to stakeholders outside the country. That a private corporation, one with a poor history of transparency in policy making as well as financial disclosure, can come to exert such control over a global resource is worrisome. ICANN’s organisational structure does not represent, either in form or substance, the constituencies and concerns of developing countries. While other major players appear poised to comment on and critique the outcome of the IANA transition, India, however, has remained at the margins of this process.

The internet governance debate matters enormously to India. Policies and principles relating to the allocation of top-level domains, the assignment of IP addresses, the management of country-level domains (.in), the integrity of root zone files, and DNS security are critical to India’s internet users, businesses and governments. In 2011, New Delhi offered a well-intentioned but misdirected proposal at the UN to create a Committee on Internet-Related Policies (CIRP). CIRP would, in effect, have usurped much of ICANN’s policy-making functions. Neither was the political climate at the time conducive nor were the details of CIRP adequate to convince UN member countries of the viability of this proposal. Since that debacle, the Indian government has retreated into a shell, offering little policy inputs on the IANA transition or related internet governance processes.

The motivation behind CIRP, nevertheless, continues to be relevant: political oversight. Internet governance as practiced by ICANN has been prone to capture by an elite coalition of US commercial interests, besides being subject to US political imperatives. If it is to succeed, multistakeholderism must offer a viable model where democratically elected governments enjoy the privileged position of speaking for their peoples, rather than being relegated to just another participant.

December 2015, when heads of state meet to review the internet’s role in sustainable development, will be a testing time for the Modi government. The Prime Minister, whose international outreach has earned him plaudits, will be required to articulate the “Indian” position on internet governance. It is important that the political nature of this summit not be allowed to detract from substantive issues. Internationally, India is viewed as a “swing state” on this issue, but the government’s views must be driven by the need for greater digital access for its growing community of users and businesses. The UN, a familiar turf for Indian diplomacy, is a good place to reinforce this claim.

Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Centre for Communication Governance, National Law University, Delhi.