Modi’s Internet Diplomacy Gambit Marks Symbolic Milestone With ICANN Summit at Hyderabad

To achieve concrete policy objectives, however, Indian bureaucrats and civil society representatives will need to redouble efforts to ‘work on the inside’ and engage more closely with various Internet governance body mechanisms.

What are India's medium-term and long-term policy objectives at Hyderabad and future Internet governance meetings? Credit: WebInfo.

What are India’s medium-term and long-term policy objectives at Hyderabad and future Internet governance meetings? Credit: Twitter, WebInfo.

Hyderabad: India playing host to the first global Internet summit after the US government ceded control over the fundamental domain names system represents a significant, if symbolic, step for the Modi government which only last year  officially endorsed a bottoms-up or ‘multistakeholder’ model of Internet governance.

And yet, according to government officials and industry observers, there is much work left to be done before India’s bureaucrats can effectively negotiate and maneuver through the mechanisms of various Internet bodies and achieve the Modi administration’s medium and long-term policy objectives.

“The ICANN [Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers] 57 meeting being held in Hyderabad this week marks the end of the first phase of our multi-stakeholder strategy.  We’ve expressed intent and made initial moves on the ground. The meeting here also ties nicely with our Digital India programme, which will be promoted heavily this weekend, and signifies how India will contribute greatly to the next wave of new Internet users,” a senior government official told The Wire.

While India’s road to multi-stakeholderism may indeed be paved with notions of democratic and grassroots governance, it was also borne out of necessity – driven by external factors such as the US government ceding oversight of  the ICANN – and a need to more effectively protect and advance the concerns of Indian Internet users, businesses and security agencies.

Historical stakeholderism

In late 2014, a few months after the Modi government assumed power, the prime minister’s office (PMO) had a crucial decision to take regarding India’s position on global Internet governance: Should it continue the previous government’s on-and-off support for an intra-governmental, state-oriented and multilateral model of governance, an approach staunchly favoured by the ministry of external affairs? Or would it be better to adopt a multi-stakeholder model of governance that would include equal participation from members of India’s civil society, academia and technical stakeholders – a process favoured and sometimes practiced by the department of information and technology.

In June 2015, multi-stakeholderism officially won out. At the opening session of the ICANN 53 meeting in Buenos Aires, IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declared that while governments would “continue to shoulder the central responsibility to secure digital networks… multistakeholderism is perhaps the only way (emphasis added) to keep the system integrated, growing and expanding.”

Prasad’s statement and the PMO’s decision, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter, ultimately boiled down to two factors. The first is that it would essentially allow the Indian government to bet on “both horses”; in essence agreeing for multistakeholder governance of the domain name system while angling for state-oriented or state-prioritised governance on other national security related issues.

This factor is most clearly present in the terms of the India-US cyber framework released earlier this year. In an almost-near echo of Prasad’s Buenos Aires statement, the fact sheet first emphasizes a commitment to the multistakeholder model of Internet governance that is “transparent and accountable to its stakeholders…including civil society and the private sector”. More crucially, in the very next point, it also emphasizes the first part of Prasad’s statement by providing “recognition of the leading role for governments (emphasis added) in cyber security matters relating to national security”.

The second factor behind the multistakeholderism push is that if India didn’t try to seriously engage with global Internet bodies, the most important of which is ICANN (which in turn would require a serious commitment towards multistakeholderism), it could be left without a seat at the high-table of Internet governance.

“After the kerfuffle in 2012 with China, Russia, the ITU and talk about greater state control over the Internet, the US made it clear that it wouldn’t cede control to an inter-governmental organisation. At this point, it became clear that India’s strategic concerns would be best achieved through forums such as the new ICANN and committing towards multistakeholderism,” a senior internet governance analyst said.

“The push towards multistakeholderism from India was also one factor, among many others, that helped in legitmising the US government’s handover of power and making the overall process a little easier,” the analyst added.

Hyderabad and forward

While multiple participants at the meeting here in Hyderabad pointed out that India doesn’t often push for specific policies at the ICANN, mostly because it has very little domestic industry or corporate pressure (from registrars or other stakeholder groups) unlike the US or various European countries, government officials point out that there are both medium-term and long-term objectives. The latter of which include long-standing demands such as an Indian root server and even potentially addressing the demand for non-US ICANN  jurisdiction. 

These objectives, however, cannot be achieved until Indian bureaucrats, think-tank analysts and researchers work their way into higher positions amongst the various consulting and working groups; get elected to positions on various Internet governance bodies and constituency groups. One case in point, an industry observer notes, is that just a few months ago the ICANN nominating committee (which selects a majority of ICANN officers) rejected three Indian candidacy applications without even interviewing the applicants in question.

One senior DoT official acknowledged this issue and pointing out that “working from the inside”, building consensus and achieving India’s strategic goals was simply a matter “putting in greater time and effort”.

“We have covered some ground in this regard. As you would know, we have made some progress in bodies such as APNIC [a major Asia-Pacific Internet address registry]. Others will take time,” the DoT official said.

What then is India hoping to achieve, both at Hyderabad, and in numerous Internet governance meetings ahead? According to conversations The Wire had with government officials and ICANN participants, there are three broad medium-term objectives.

The first is to ensure equal ownership and access to lucrative top-level domain (TLD) names. Registration applications also sometimes run into crores (rupees), which deter the Indian businesses that do look to do so. A crucial aspect of this is to push for more inclusive participation in the gTLD (global-TLD) process.

As one government official wryly put it: “It was a surprise to some Indian officials when they realised that ‘.yoga’ could not be taken exclusively by us [the government]. At one point, we put together a list of around 20 gTLDs which India and Indian companies should ideally have, including domain names such as ‘.ayurveda’ and the like”.

A second objective, which requires greater cooperation with the ICANN but not necessarily through its formal proposal or negotiation process, is ensuring that India is part of the technical standards creating process for non-English and native languages. With most of India’s population set to come online still, the manner and the languages through they access the Web will be critical.

Finally, the government is also looking to build human capacity and expertise within India, “especially on the DNS side”. “It’s not as if we don’t have smart people, but in this regard, initiatives such as greater ICANN certification in India and knowledge transfer or exposure go a long way in creating our own capacity,” said one official.