Thursday, June 09, 2016

Where have I been? Working at Twitter!

Totally mortified that I've neglected this blog for close to a year, and not going to make this mistake again. But while I sharpen my pencil, do indulge me. I was interviewed by about my new job and where I've been hanging my hat. If anyone still reads by blog, here goes: (link at the bottom)

Being top of the line at one of the world’s largest social networking sites at 32 is no mean feat. But Mahima Kaul has carved her own niche by working her way to the top,  becoming the India Public Policy Head for Twitter. A former journalist, she worked with one of the biggest think-tanks in India- Observer Researcher Foundation (ORF) before moving on to the global giant. A keen researcher of internet governance and it’s significance in our lives, she has written extensively on internet governance issues, information and communication technology and cyber security.

Mahima talks to us about what influenced her choices, work decisions, women at the executive and her personal inspiration.

Being Public Policy Head is a socially responsible business.

I feel extremely lucky to be working with one of the world’s best known companies; one that stands for free expression in an increasingly connected and complicated world. When I look around me and think of the incredible changes that Twitter has brought into our lives, it almost seems unbelievable that I grew up in a fairly analog world. Twitter has become extremely central to our online (and offline) lives during emergencies, helping to build a community where we share laughter and tears, and create alternative narratives and promote counter speech.

There are three aspects to my role. The first is to monitor and participate in internet policy debates and consultations with the government of India as it pertains to Twitter’s functioning in the Indian market. This is important because as our government – like many others – seek to regulate a very new and dynamic space for the first time, they look to other stakeholders like civil society and business to provide inputs in order to ensure the policies and laws are progressive.

The second is to talk to our users about Twitter’s own policies, rules and tools, and how they function so that there is transparency and clarity about how the platform operates. The third is working with NGOs and charities under #TwitterForGood.

Mutual benefits with  getting on board Twitter 

When we take on new roles, we do it to make a difference. Outside of policy, I also manage a program called #TwitterForGood, where I work with NGOs who are doing phenomenal work in the areas of free expression, emergency and crisis response, women in tech, access & inclusion and digital citizenship. 

Recently, we launched the #PositionOfStrength program in India, where we are tackling head on two pressing issues in this digital age; leveraging the opportunity social media – Twitter – provides us in creating a unique voice to talk about the issues that are important to us, and second, understanding how to stay safe in this new media environment. My own passion, carried forward from the days when I worked with a community media organization called Video Volunteers, has now found a new home at Twitter. I’d like to think it’s mutually beneficial to be able to carry forward this work.

The inspiration along the way

My journey has been amazing and a lot of fun, filled with ups and downs. I started off on the edit team of the Indian Express and was lucky enough to have an editor who really helped me hone my writing skills. I left print for TV, as all young journalists did back then, and ended up doing work for Al Jazeera, CCTV and PBS. Again, I benefitted from working for a dynamic woman who helped me learn the art of producing a news documentary. Over time, I became very interested in one kind of story – how technology impacts society. As a result I found myself doing projects with NGOs working at this intersection. Often this involved travelling to rural India and doing case-studies on websites and mobile phone apps were changing the very fabric of society. Taking all these experiences, I wrote a paper on digital inclusion during an ‘Emerging Leaders Fellowship’ at the University of Melbourne, Australia. I returned to India and joined ORF. What kept me inspired was the work itself , it was intellectually engaging and I constantly met new people who were at the cutting edge of what they were doing, and it made me want to do more with my life!

The learnings at Observer Research Foundation(ORF)

Setting up the Cyber Initiative at ORF, India’s most influential think-tank, was what can only be described as a great adventure. I worked very closely with the Vice President of ORF, a great mentor, and built from scratch a very important platform to hold internet policy debates important to both India – government, business and civil society – and to a global audience interested in Indian views on internet governance. We had tremendous success with CyFy; an internet policy conference which not only hosted senior ministers from India and abroad, but brought some of the brightest academics and industry leaders to India. ORF also gave me the space to grow, publish, and present my views at global forums like the Stockholm Internet Forum, RightsCon and CyFy itself. I’m very proud and lucky to have had that experience.

The inclination towards online privacy, internet safety, and governance.

As a teenager who discovered social media when in college at McGill University, Canada, my weekly routine involved faithfully uploading pictures online after every party I attended. Slowly, one came to understand the privacy implications of putting out information in the public domain. But along with enjoying online personal networks, as an active blogger starting 2005, I experienced the wonderful possibilities of interest-based online communities. In fact one of my first op-eds for the Indian Express was about how the Indian blogging community responded to the government blocking blogger in 2006. I wrote passionately why young people in India wanted and needed the internet — “accessibility to information is key” — and against censoring the internet.

Some of my blogposts were picked up at times by Global Voices Online and Open Democracy, even Huffington Post (before it came to India!). With this exposure, along with my day-job of being a mainstream journalist, I found myself gravitating towards the questions of free expression, privacy, and safety, and my work so far as reflected that interest. By the way, I still upload pictures on a regular basis!   

Breaking through the glass ceiling  

My mother is a successful lawyer and I’ve grown up seeing her work hard through my life. So, I’ve been lucky to have a strong female role model in my life. And as a result, I’ve always gravitated towards strong women – leaders in the corporate world, politics, NGOs – and if I’ll be really honest, even on TV shows! It is wonderful to hear from these strong women leaders about how they navigated the many challenges of being a woman in the workplace, managing the competing attentions of home and office. I’m inspired by their hard work, dedication, and articulation. There aren’t enough women who get the opportunity and support to reach the top, and I’m very happy that we are talking about this more in India.  I hope, in some small way, I’m able to positively contribute to this conversation and bring real change to the landscape in India.

Advice to women aspiring to enter the corporate world

For me, there are three takeaways that I can offer from my personal experience, be it a corporate job or any other. The first is I was interested in a sector where the jobs weren’t obvious ten years ago and often I had to create opportunities for myself by suggesting new ideas and projects.  So sometimes the journey is a discovery, and innovation is key.

The second is that people can sometimes try to undermine you simply because you are a young woman with ambition. To that I say, try and work with the best people you know. There are many who help you grow and reach your potential. Focus on them. Do your best, work hard and deliver results.

The third is related. When the Nirbhaya rape happened in 2012, like many others, I felt a strong personal connection to the incident and felt violated myself. But I channeled that energy and reaffirmed to myself that I’m not going to let the regressive and repressive parts of our society dictate my freedom, mobility and life choices. At the time I wrote a blog called ‘they can’t rape it out of me’. Now I recognize that as offering an alternate narrative; trying to find something positive in the negative. If only we could remember that all the time!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The ‘I’ in the Internet Must Also Stand for India

When the Snowden revelations brought American control over global communications into sharper relief,  the United States threw a curveball at the global Internet community. It proposed and backed a multi-stakeholder framework of governance to manage the critical logic layer of the Internet and offered to replace US oversight of key functions within the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to a body comprising all stakeholders. It was becoming apparent that while the net as we know it may well have been invented and seeded in the US, its continuing and overwhelming control of this common resource was untenable. But the US proposal was clever for two reasons. First, US corporations and US civil society groups (many funded by these corporates) are more than capable of managing core US interests even after Washington cedes control. Second, it was and is still quite improbable for a multi-stakeholder mechanism to  replace US control of the functions of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority ( IANA), failing which the IANA transition process would continue to remain where it was. Indeed, this was precisely the outcome which loomed large as important digital nations such as India remained at a distance from this process.

Things changed dramatically on Monday when the Indian Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Ravi Shankar Prasad, in a video address to the ICANN gathering in Buenos Aires stated that, “the internet must remain plural, must be managed through a multilayered and multistakeholder system.” He added that “its strengths will lie in partnerships between like-minded nations and stakeholders, built on a platform which supports and will sustain a future of equity and innovation and collaboration and inclusion.”

Nuances in India’s stand

Even as this announcement is studied, digested and lauded, some nuances within the text need to be discussed further. First, it is clear that even as India has opted for the multistakeholder system of global governance, it is still pushing for reform of this system to ensure it becomes more plural, equitable, geographically representative and democratic. This is something the minister’s speech clearly highlighted. It is not business as usual for India and it will certainly not be business as usual for those occupying pride of place on the governance high table. This model requires greater plurality and diverse representation that will challenge much of the group thinking that dominates this sector. Prasad was categorical in his pronouncement if the subtext of his speech is properly understood. India was not merely seeking to blindly support a system of Internet governance dominated by the Atlantic countries but was seeking an imminent rebalance towards Asia.

The second message embedded within Prasad’s speech was that India is keen to engage with all forums . The fact that the Indian minister announced the policy shift at ICANN53 is a message in itself. That he is finalising his visit to ICANN in the near future is evidence of deeper engagement with a process that India had hitherto distanced itself from. The minister also alluded to something that has exercised the mind of many Indian stakeholders, that the country must host something that can match and surpass the scale and reach of the NETMundial hosted by the Brazilians. The development agenda and the framework for the digital economy that could change the lives of the ‘next billion’ must be crafted and co-developed by this billion, in their own neighbourhoods. The minister’s assertion that India will host an international conversation that will articulate India’s own motivations and objectives to the world and make the global community a partner in this mission must be understood in this vein.

The next billion

The Indian state has both committed to transforming itself through digital means and at the same time building a global system that can accommodate and allow for such a transformation. Access, Voice and Opportunity must not be more cumbersome for the ‘next billion.’ And, this also means more responsibility for the Indian government. By opting for multistakeholderism it has just signed up for a bag full of new responsibilities. The agency of the sovereign will now have to be secured by a variety of stakeholders who may be more acceptable in certain forums. The government will have to invest in building capacity among them, building greater diversity among those who participate and ensuring greater representation of these stakeholders at key Internet governance debates globally. Without this, for India and many others, the global multistakeholder system will continue to reinforce existing disparities of the real world even in the digital world.

The third significant message within the speech was the quest of India to seek partnerships with key countries and institutions. And it is here that India will be able to carve a space significantly different from others. A space that a country of the size of India needs, the room a diverse and developing democracy must have. The needs of a billion people impose a very different set of responsibilities on a political system which must deliver to remain relevant. This was a call to those on the governance high table, particularly the United States, to respond adequately to the Indian overture. That these two countries, the largest net communities in the democratic world, must cooperate is unexceptionable, essential and inevitable. The details of this cooperation now need to be fleshed out and could be based on three key strands of association.

What the US must do

The US has long considered the free flow of information and commerce a pre-condition to a healthy global economy. India, as it digitally connects, is looking to forge the right partnerships to ensure limitless economic opportunities for its citizens. The first pillar of the India-US cyber relationship should be to ensure that their consumers and producers are able to leverage the largest English-speaking digital markets in the world. For this, they need a digital space free from encumbrances of power politics and petty policy. This would mean rationalising tax regimes, expanding Internet connectivity, settling issues of Internet jurisdiction, developing contemporary approaches to intermediary liability and operation, agreeing on data collection, data ownership and data management, privacy and freedom of expression, as well as developing an eco-system that would allow for investments in technology and infrastructure, crucial for the development of these digital markets.

A strong security partnership is the second aspect of the India-US relationship. Both countries believe strongly in the role of national governments in shepherding their societies through a host of new challenges. For both, strong nation-states lie at the centre of a multistakeholder system and, unlike European countries, neither is seeking to aggregate or dilute sovereignty. Therefore, the bilateral partnership needs to be built on a realist paradigm. From information sharing on crime, to attacks on critical infrastructure to countering terrorism, the India-US relationship can rise to become the backbone on which the Internet stands strong. For the US, this partnership should form the central ‘I’ of the Internet. For India, the US is already its chief digital interlocutor.

There should also be close collaboration on the logic layer of the Internet. Any one who understands the Internet realizes that there is a certain reality of the logic infrastructure that the Internet runs on. This is the dominance of the United States of America. Though the international community may manage ICANN or some other institutions, oversight rests with the US government alone. US courts have jurisdiction over the entities, and disputes between countries and Internet institutions are tried under US law.


The India-US relationship must deliver space to India on this front. Even as the all-important debate over how best to internationalise these institutions continues, the US must find ways to provide India the comfort that it seeks for its huge digital community. This could be by way of a bilateral deal around digital jurisdiction and territory, more Indian presence in the corporations involved with running the internet – the ‘i’ family – as well as the eventual and desirable location of a root server in India. The argument that “if we give this to India, China will want it too” is disingenuous. The US policy community continuously reminds India that it must not side with a Russia or China, as it is different and democratic. Yet, the very same community is quick to create equivalence of these countries with India when the latter seeks unique treatment.

Carving out a place for India, proportional to its growing weight in the global Internet eco-system is crucial. If this does not happen, the celebrations around India supporting a multistakeholder system may be short-lived. The security and political hawks will strike back and prevail and the Indian state will find comfort in the old methods of the last century. The US must see this message from Ravi Shankar Prasad as an opening, a new opportunity to meaningfully engage India.
Even as Washington expects India to be a net security provider in the Indo-Pacific region, the country is offering itself as a key partner in managing the cyber oceans. This moment must not be lost. India has responded favourably to the post-Snowden Internet governance proposition, The US must now reciprocate.

Samir Saran is vice president and Mahima Kaul heads the cyber and media intiative at the Observer Research Foundation

Monday, June 22, 2015

Is the time ripe for a ‘Digital Magna Carta”? Thoughts after the BBC play...

You might remember the BBC play I critiqued recently:

Some thoughts....  


Even those who have railed against the historical effectiveness of the Magna Carta at the time of its signing must concede that it introduced into society a principle which holds true and powerful till today. That ‘no free man shall be seized or imprisoned...except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land,’ has made this document an ‘emblem of  the long struggle of people everywhere against the excesses of an arbitrary ruler’ in the 800 years of its existence. The Magna Carta, incidentally, was signed under duress. In 1215, England’s King John had to sign a peace treaty with rebellious barons who had marched against him, a situation made dire by the threat of French invasion from across the sea.

Whatever be its historical truth, its myth precedes it. Its power lies in the idea that today, hundreds of years later, it can inspire a new ‘Magna Carta’ – a document for the digital age, crafting a new social contract between the State and its citizens – and of course, the big internet companies.

To celebrate its anniversary, the BBC broadcast a radio play, set in an imagined future where a crippling cyber attack on the world’s internet network forces the G20 and the I-5 (the most internet companies in the world) to negotiate a digital Magna Carta with a small band of engineers who can save the network. There are three main clauses to this Bill of Rights: an end to the weaponization of the internet; a universal charter to govern it: one network, one law; and guaranteed rights of access to all users.

Twenty-five years since the internet, and there can be no doubt that at least 3 billion of the world’s 7 billion population have seen their lives changed drastically because of connectivity. Agenda setting for shaping this digital society is at a feverish pitch, as processes, conferences, stakeholders and consensus-documents dot the line of the global internet governance system. The Digital Bill of Rights flagged in the BBC play are not simple concepts. Weaponization of space by both state and non-state actors is rampant, with parallel processes running out of the UN, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the ‘London Process’ to develop norms of State Behaviour in Cyberspace. Ultimately, these documents might serve to guide responsible behavior, but a complete – formal -- ban on weaponization of cyberspace seems unlikely. Consider that the closest the world has come to genuinely ridding itself of nuclear weapons is when Superman collected all nukes from around the world and threw them into the Sun in a movie in 1987!

Similarly, the idea that the internet could be governed by one broad law – and clearly an ideal law that would protect freedoms, privacy and citizens from unnecessary surveillance -- is also unlikely in the near future. Today, the internet is governed by the individual laws of nations, with serious questions being asked about which laws apply in a transnational incident, often criminal in nature, when different parties are scattered in different geographies, made further complicated by the fluid nature of data in cyberspace. Given that commerce fuels much of the growth of the internet, a move to harmonize laws across like-minded countries seems a plausible way forward, however, even business cannot account for cultural and economic peculiarities of different regions.

The final demand set forth in the play is that users be guaranteed rights of access. What might sound reasonable given that buzzwords like ‘right to internet’, ‘public utility’ and ‘digital citizenship’ dot the media, however, the ideas might not be as universal as one might imagine. After all, imbibed in the idea of guaranteed access is that free expression is a fundamental right; one not particularly backed by authoritarian countries. Even democratic countries cite law and order problems as a reason to ‘switch off’ access to the internet. In fact, a ‘right’ could be said to be borne out an understanding of what the internet means to society. Does this right to broadband pre-suppose that the internet is key to enjoy the fundamental right to free expression? Or, is it a commercial network, one of many avenues of expression, that should reach citizen-consumers through the market?

These aren’t the only clauses that might make to a ‘Digital Magna Carta’ were it to be drafted today. A project in the UK called ‘My Digital Rights’ also threw open this question to the public. Around 3000 people aged 10-18 submitted around 5000 clauses. The top clause is “The Web we want will not let companies pay to control it, and not let governments restrict our right to information,” while the 10th clause is “the Web we want will not sell our personal information and preferences for money, and will make it clearer if the company/Website intends to do so.” These might change as the project is still open.

But one thing is clear. The ‘Web’ – with all its fibre optic cables, satellites, wi-fi zones, laptops, mobile phones and other infrastructure has been endowed with a certain positive quality to be protected. The system – this network of networks – is measured by average users more by its potential to be a force for good than any downside. To achieve this, netizens want freedom from surveillance from governments who are tasked from protect them, and freedom from data collection by internet companies whose services they use, often freely. This is because their personal data – often called the ‘new oil’ indicating its value in today’s world – is the new high-value currency in the digital world. The UN Human Rights Council has taken up this subject, and special reports on the Right to Privacy as well on encryption and anonymity have been released to ensure users are afforded the protections they need to operate in this ecosystem.  And along with this, their own responsibilities (or corresponding duties to their rights) is of crucial importance too. After all, hacking, stealing, harassing, bullying, and other anti-social, often criminal activities, also emanate from actors other than governments and business.

Is the time ripe for a ‘Digital Magna Carta’ is as compelling a question as any. In the play, ‘The Great Charter’, a massive cyber attack forced the hand of the world leaders to sign a document at the insistence of a small group, much like King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta by his barons. Today, global internet governance is on a different trajectory of sorts: consensus based documents crafted by multiple stakeholders is the order of the day. It is long process, fraught with challenges, nuances, compromises and legalities, and is still missing 4 billion offline voices. But certainly a process made inclusive by access to information, remote-participation, social media engagement and the free flow of ideas.

Perhaps “we” of the web will be able to save it, after all.

Friday, June 19, 2015

CyFy Journal: The Shifting Digital Pivot Time for Smart Multilateralism*

Dear all,

The CyFy Journal, a collection of essays by current experts in the field of internet governance is out today. It has been published by ORF, in collaboration with Global Policy Journal. I am very proud to have been associated with the editorial team behind its publication and have also the opportunity to publish a piece in it, co-authored with my colleague, Samir Saran, Vice President, ORF.
The entire journal is available here:

And pasted below is my piece:

The Shifting Digital Pivot Time for Smart Multilateralism*

Samir Saran, Chair, CyFy and Vice President, Observer Research Foundation, India Mahima Kaul, Head of Cyber and Media Initiative, Observer Research Foundation, India

As a decentralised and multistakeholder global internet governance system becomes institutionalised, countries like India need to build strategies to successfully navigate the ecosystem to achieve their national goals. Pursuing a policy of ‘smart multilateralism’— which is a mixed bouquet of bilateral, multilateral and multistakeholder arrangements— suits India’s goals to carve a niche role for itself and achieve Indian exceptionalism in cyberspace. 

 It is difficult to capture the shifting power centres and discourse of global internet governance in a single sentence, paragraph or even paper. The number of countries actively engaging in this debate is increasing at a steady pace, as is the number of stakeholders. Countries like India, at the periphery of these discussions although crucial to their outcomes, are actively strategising on how to engage with a decentralised and largely multistakeholder global system that does not simply rely on the state as the key interlocutor for its citizens. Who should the state engage with, and how? Which are the focus areas where the state should take the lead, and in which layers of internet governance should it rely on ‘digital ambassadors’ from academia, civil society, the private sector and activist groups to further its national goals? How must it decide these national goals, at a time when internet governance itself is being redefined? How must the state go about creating a pool of digital ambassadors to pursue these goals?

In this paper, we examine why and how sovereignty is slowly being redefined in the global internet governance ecosystem, and suggest that adopting a strategy of ‘smart multilateralism’ is the best way forward for India to carve out a niche role for itself and secure Indian exceptionalism in cyberspace.

Competing Agendas: The New Normal

The network of networks is not only expanding with every new device connected to the internet, but is today a resource as valuable in non-material terms as it is in material terms. This growth of the global cyberspace, and by extension the cyber economy, is adding $450 billion to the global GDP every year according to McKinsey Global Institute’s report ‘Global Flows in a Digital Age.’1 It argues that the flow of goods, services and finance reached $26 trillion in 2012, or 36 percent of global GDP, 1.5 times the level in 1990. This is expected to increase to $85 trillion by 2025, three times the value in 2012. Underneath these figures is the need for data and communication to flow freely—‘connectedness.’ The lack of real world tariffs and barriers has allowed the emerging economies to participate and profit from the world economy. India is currently ranked at 30, jumping 16 spots from the previous year, in McKinsey Global Institute’s Connectedness Index 2012.2

The clear benefits of this new ‘connectedness’ have allowed corporations to earn the trust of large sections of civil society. The rise of social media has also given the consumer-citizen a voice, which is exercised vigorously. A loss of confidence in public institutions across the world has bolstered these trends. The Snowden revelations3 were a watershed moment in internet history, eroding credibility in traditional powers like the US government and opening the door for new players—other governments, businesses and civil society alike— to assume a central role in managing the internet. NETmundial, the international internet governance conference hosted by the Brazilian government soon after the Snowden revelations, is one example. It demonstrated the collective weight of civil society, and both national governments and corporations have had to pay heed to it.

Take, for example, the letter written by Cisco chief executive officer John Chambers to US President Barack Obama,4 warning that America’s technological leadership will be impaired if a fragmented internet is the result of the Snowden revelations about mass surveillance by the US government. Similar misapprehensions surfaced across the world, particularly when countries like Brazil, Germany and even India reacted strongly to the news, to the extent of considering data localisation.5 Further, Germany has announced it is ending its long-running contract with Verizon communications in 2015 over concerns that it is legally required to hand over certain information to the US National Security Agency (NSA).6

US technology companies have begun to feel the consequences, as people around the world have begun to shun them for fear of their close relationship with the US NSA. Various research has pinned losses of US technology corporations over the next few years anywhere from $35 billion to $180 billion.7 Companies like IBM and Microsoft have plans to build data centres across the globe to pre-empt any economic damage they may suffer due to the political damage that has accrued post-Snowden.8 Big multinational companies like Microsoft admit that there is now a ‘value shift’ across the global cyber market, one that the incumbents need to familiarise themselves with.9 This is of particular significance, since US soft diplomacy is often carried out through its corporations, which have become assets to them in places where the American government is unpopular.

On its part, the US government seeks to back a decentralised, multistakeholder internet governance ecosystem at the global level. Currently, the transition proposed by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) away from US government oversight to a new, non-governmental, multistakeholder body is underway. By encouraging this transition, the US government hopes to regain some of its lost credibility and also establish the current ecosystem as the dominant and stable alternative to a traditional UN based system or a US-controlled one. And while this new system certainly accommodates the growing legitimacy of many different groups and their competing interest, it does leave sovereign countries in a dilemma. How can they best leverage the current system to achieve their goals?

Sovereignty Redefined

Following the International Telecommunications Union’s plenipotentiary10 meeting in Busan, South Korea, in 2014, the official who led the United States’ delegation wrote a blog called ‘The Busan Consensus.’11 The title of this blog reveals as much as its content does. Today, the US’s preferred option for global internet governance decision-making is consensus-driven, where no single party has a veto over the process. This a direct reference to shedding the decision-making structures the UN offers, which have traditionally been a one-country-one-vote system. It may be instructive to add here that the NETmundial Outcome Statement was drafted by the multistakeholder community through a consensusbased process, and is the reason why it has global acceptability across a majority of stakeholders. For its part, ‘The Busan Consensus’ also notes with satisfaction that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a body under the auspices of the United Nations, is not going to become a platform to discuss internet public policy issues.

The victory is not a small one. This goal had been outlined quite clearly almost two years before the Busan meeting took place, and US diplomats and envoys travelled the world building consensus on the issue. The ITU resolutions are binding on countries in a way NETmundial is not. It was this gigantic effort made by the US that helped defeat India’s own draft resolution at the ITU plenipotentiary. India had made two suggestions: The first was that the ITU, a UN-led multilateral body, could absorb some key roles related to the critical functions of the internet because, according to the Indian proposal, the internet cannot be separated from telecommunications. The second suggestion built on the premise that regulating telecommunications is the sovereign right of states, and therefore, some features of internet governance would naturally fit into an expanded mandate of the ITU.

This final outcome might seem to be paradoxical at first glance. A move to keep global internet public policy discussions away from a platform where only sovereign countries have a vote is at the same time being claimed as a victory by a sovereign country in its quest to settle global internet governance mechanisms. The fact is that ‘The Busan Consensus’ certainly reads as an affirmation of US dominance, but it is in service of perpetuating the ‘multistakeholder’ consensus-based internet governance model that is currently the global system employed to discuss internet public policy issues. If this sounds confusing, it is because it certainly is. The current internet governance ecosystem can best be described as decentralised, with a number of platforms which range from multilateral to multistakeholder, that are each suited to discuss only particular aspects of internet governance.

What the US and some other countries have understood clearly is that governance of the internet—an entity which means different things to different stakeholders—cannot be regulated in a centralised manner. The old legacy institutions of the UN no longer carry the same weight they used to, and today are often sidelined by agreements in smaller multilateral groupings or bilateral agreements, and multistakeholder meetings.

This is how internet governance works: Those looking to regulate the internet’s technical working flock to ICANN, where engineers, diplomats, business leaders and civil society sit together, while at other forums like the Group of Governmental Experts constituted under the UN to discuss norms of state behaviour in cyberspace, only top government officials take a place at the table. Other meetings, like the Internet Governance Forum, are highly anticipated by civil society, governments and business, but produce non-binding outcomes which only carry moral weight in the internet governance world.

It would be a mistake to assume that the value of sovereignty has diminished in this new dynamic ecosystem. If anything, it has expanded to include participants in the pursuit of sovereign goals by including new stakeholders who are crucial for the growth and security of the internet ecosystem. Businesses, which predominantly own the physical infrastructure the internet is built on, and who run companies which are driving the growth of internet traffic, need to be accommodated in this discussion along with end users, civil society and the technical community, without whom innovative growth is not possible. Therefore, regulating porous digital borders from attacks, protecting the data and privacy of citizens, negotiating and helping to develop technical standards on which the internet is run, and inculcating a system of trust in this network of networks cannot be conducted on a single platform.

The nation-state must be smart and understand that consensus building with multiple stakeholders, including like-minded countries, has become the backbone on which this system is being built. Countries with big diplomatic corps and mature internet industries and civil society movements have been early adopters of the system. They are using the system to keep decision-making open and malleable, especially when it concerns core functions. Other, smaller countries have adopted issues of immediate importance to them—for example, building consensus on the norms of cyberspace—in order to build a safer cyberspace where they do not come under attack from larger powers. Emerging economies have much to gain by consensus building and some are certainly dipping their toes in the system.

For India, the assertion of sovereignty must straddle both worlds: One where governments are looking for a place in the critical resource management of the internet, and the other where other stakeholders are equally invested in the success of this enterprise and need to be accommodated in this high-stakes debate. India too must, as it is doing slowly, embrace this new digital complex. A country which has 300 million internet users (with the ‘next billion’ yet to be connected to the internet), large scale e-governance projects underway, an innovative and growing e-commerce market already generating sales of $16 billion in 2014, and is especially vulnerable to cyber threats given its scale and low-cost-low-security devices, has a unique set of issues it needs to address. The scale of India’s net population, the variety of services it seeks to supply and its social imperatives make India’s position special. Indian exceptionalism needs to be fulfilled in the internet era. What the country imperatively needs next is a strategy for the road ahead.

Smart Multilateralism

It is an unlikely scenario that India will carry the weight of a billion people in a single vote on a common platform like the UN. Such a situation is not desirable either. India cannot and should not have the same weight in internet discussions as countries with small internet populations and even smaller economies. It should take the lead in carving out rules of the road that are beneficial to the healthy growth of India’s cyberspace. The underlying question being asked here is: What is the best suitable platform for negotiations in order to achieve a positive result? Traditional multilateralism has to be tweaked to become ‘smart multilateralism’: The state must take the lead in core strategic areas of concern at platforms best suited to these discussions, while relying on other stakeholders to take the lead in other contemporary forums and institutions where the state has less sway and acceptability.

Smart multilateralism can be divided into four broad pillars. The first would be for India to institutionalise its exceptionalism through bilateral agreements with like-minded and relevant partners. Already there is momentum in India’s relationships with key countries, which can be strengthened further. In fact, bilateral agreements between countries can lead to changes in international arrangements and laws at the highest level. Take for example how the India-US nuclear deal, borne of a bilateral arrangement, is compelling the UN to change its rigid architecture. India was one of 23 founding members of the multilateral General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade arrangement, raising developing country concerns at the grouping which later grew to become the World Trade Organization, a body that today boasts of 123 signatory countries. India has far greater weight and participation at the G20 and even greater significance at the BRICS. This is because the former was a focused group created to respond to a specific economic task at hand, while the latter was made in response to an infirmity in the global governance system. Contrast this to India’s single vote—and not even a veto—at the UN. India could create a rule-making body—a new ‘Digital 20’—which could have members who are equally invested in the system. The key to success would lie in choosing the right partners, whose influence would be proportional to their ‘buy-in’ and stakes. This right mix of partners with real-world influence could come together to agree on digital norms and rules for the 21st century.

The second would be to engage with opportunities for rule making and norm shaping outside the UN. The state-led London process is one such avenue. The ICANN transition process is another. There are plenty of smaller gatherings, such as technical meetings, regional forums and high-level meetings organised by academic institutions and think-tanks, which help steer public policy thought in specific directions. These must be leveraged after careful selection. At the same time, one must add that there is still space for norm making within the UN system, most notably through the Group of Governmental Experts, which looks at shaping norms of state behaviour in cyberspace, and through interventions at the World Summit on the Information Society review meetings.

The third broad pillar to pursue is the creation of a platform that would manage and shape the discourse on managing the digital world. This is admittedly easier said than done, as the internet governance ecosystem is dotted with overlapping conferences in all parts of the world. However, not all attempts to create a platform have been successful. The recent example of a lukewarm response to the NETmundial Initiative spearheaded by ICANN, Brazil and the World Economic Forum comes to mind. Volunteers at ICANN too have complained of process fatigue. However, meetings which can take a fresh and honest look at problems from new perspectives are needed if the decentralised ecosystem is to work, and this gives emerging economies an advantage. Given that the next four billion to come online are going to be from their countries—reflecting a digital pivot to Asia—conversations crucial to the growth, freedom and security of these regions have automatically become pressing. Often, gatherings in the developing world do not reflect these concerns accurately, paying lip service to concepts like the ‘digital divide’ and ‘capacity building’ as they discuss issues important to emerging economies, such as intellectual property rights and a possible cyber arms race. This is where a country like India, representing all spectrums of the digital society—the uber-connected, the recently-connected and the completely unconnected—can present a legitimate platform to hold discussions on pertinent digital debates. Weight must be given to the platform by having the Prime Minister chair it, with the Minister for Communications and Information Technology co-convening, and it must give equal weight to the views of non-governmental stakeholders as it does to the government.

Finally, the fourth pillar must entail creating a robust multisectoral debate on the digital economy. India has already shown very positive first steps with the overwhelming response to the question of network neutrality. This engagement must be encouraged so that the resulting digital society is shaped by the concerns, suggestions and goals of the domestic stakeholders, to be then exported to global forums. One only need to look at the intermediary liability protections offered in the US’s domestic Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 to understand how civil liberties groups, corporations and academics have successfully managed to fight for similar protections the world over. Not only have the European Union and other countries accepted this, Indian civil society groups too have taken up the cause of intermediary liability, drawing inspiration from what they see as successful examples like the US digital copyright act. A robust domestic debate will encourage an acknowledgement of India’s own larger goals in the global sphere, and allow it to rely on its digital ambassadors to pursue a positive agenda at platforms where the state has little influence or space.


Ultimately, there is no escaping the reality of our times. The decentralised, multistakeholder model of internet governance has broad global acceptance, even as its exact form is being worked out. The experiment at ICANN, i.e., handing over oversight of critical functions to a multistakeholder body, is an example of how this global governance system is being operationalised. Many countries around the world have openly declared their support for the multistakeholder system, including the US, the UK, the Netherlands and Brazil. Others are still learning to straddle the new system.

This is where the second reality comes into play. States will increasingly manipulate digital spaces to their advantage, and this control and manipulations will be managed through third parties, including corporations, civil society, scientists and academia. The strength of this will lie in domestic multistakeholder processes that will allow these different actors to work towards a common long-term vision of the internet, even as short-term goals may differ. The states which will succeed in meeting their broader internet policy goals in this age of ‘smart multilateralism’ will be the ones who are able to create strong partnerships with non-state stakeholders.

At the start of 2015, India’s Minister for Communications and Information Technology was famously quoted as saying that “India will decide on its internet governance model which will be consistent with the role private players play in the spread of internet and the pre-eminent role played by government in public welfare… to come up with a broad framework, we will need to consult various stakeholders.”12 This must also be the blueprint for India’s approach towards international internet governance. The objective, therefore, for India to pursue must be “how to retain agency with the government while leveraging the creative capacities outside.”13

1 James Manyika et al, “Global Flows in a Digital Age,” McKinsey Global Institute, April 2014,
2 Ibid.
3 In June 2013, Edward Snowden, a contractor working with the US National Security Agency (NSA), leaked classified documents to several media outlets around the world. The first batch of documents published revealed mass surveillance practiced by the NSA and other security agencies within the USA through programmes like PRISM and Boundless Informant. Later leaks revealed varying degrees of collusion with US agencies by foreign security agencies and private companies. Data was collected directly from fibre optic cables and through information sharing systems. As he leaked the documents, Snowden fled first to Hong Kong and then to Russia, where he remains.
4 Arik Hesseldahl, “In Letter to Obama, Cisco CEO Complains About NSA Allegations,” Re/code, May 18, 2014,
5 Jonah Force Hill, “The Growth of Data Localization Post-Snowden: Analysis and Recommendations for U.S. Policymakers and Industry Leaders,” Lawfare Research Paper Series 2, no. 3 (21 July 2014),
6 Kristin Bent, “German Government Ends Contract With Verizon Over U.S. Spying Concerns,” CRN, June 27, 2014,
7 Claire Cain Miller, “Revelations of NSA spying cost US tech companies,” The New York Times, March 21, 2014,
8 Ibid.
9 Aaron Kleiner, “Rethinking the Cyber Global Market,” Panel discussion at CyFy 2014: The India Conference on Cyber Security and Internet Governance, New Delhi, October 15-17, 2014, http://
10 The ITU Plenipotentiary Conference is the top policymaking body and supreme organ of the International Telecommunication Union. It is a meeting of ITU Member States and is held every four years. Plenipotentiary conferences adopt the underlying policies of the organisation, determine its structures and activities, establish the financial plan for the organisation and revise the Constitution and Convention when needed. They set the ITU’s general policies, adopt fouryear strategic and financial plans, and elect the senior management team of the organisation, the members of Council and the members of the Radio Regulations Board. The Plenipot is the key event at which ITU member states decide on the future role of the organisation, and determine the ITU’s position on issues such as convergence, telephone tariffs, the internet, universal service and electronic commerce.
11 Daniel Sepulveda, “The Busan Consensus,” U.S. Department of State Official Blog, November 10, 2014,
12 “India’s Internet Governance Model to Balance Public & Private Interests”, The Huffington Post, January 1, 2015, 6486234.html.
13 Samir Saran, “A Time to Lead”, The Indian Express, April 16, 2015, article/opinion/columns/a-time-to-lead/.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

BBC Radio Play "The Great Charter"

I was lucky enough to participate in a wonderful project put together by the BBC. On the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (England’s King John and the country’s warring barons agreed on a peace treaty that would resolve future disputes and curb the king's power. It was called the Magna Carta – and is enshrined today as a democratic principle).

BBC Radio asked Matthew Solon to write a play - called the "The Great Charter" imagining "a scary future where civilisation as we know it is collapsing because the networks have failed. Only one man – an engineer - can bring the world back from the abyss. But there is a heavy price to pay. The Great Charter explores a range of contemporary issues such as information security and cyber-terrorism."

To reflect on some of its themes "Click" assembles a panel of experts including Matthew Solon who wrote the play, the computer scientist, Professor Dame Wendy Hall and Mahima Kaul who heads the Cyber and Media Initiative at the Observer Research Foundation in India.

Link to the actual radio play:

Link to the reflections on themes I participated in:
It was actually a very innovative and engaging idea and I really do urge you to listen to the play, and the discussion afterwards!

Monday, June 08, 2015

Strive for a Balance between Access & Price

Written for IAMAI's 'Thinking Aloud' Magazine. 

The TRAI consultation paper on Regulatory Framework for Over-the-top (OTT) services 2015, certainly revealed a few biases by asking what India could learn from ETNO or best-practices from other countries at the end of Chapter 4 on Regulatory Interventions for OTTs in Other Countries. ETNO, or the European Telecommunications Network Operators, put out a plan in 2012 to enable European telecom operators to negotiate pricing schemes with OTT providers. This included OTTs paying ‘fair compensation for traffic’, new models to provide Quality of Service, and non-interference by governments in such arrangements between the network operators and information services. The price of popularity would be settled privately, without intervention by the regulator in negotiations.

This chapter in the TRAI paper then goes onto summarize the regulatory frameworks and best practices from around the world. Briefly, these offer three distinct models: the first, offers separate regulatory regimes for communication services and non – communication services, as in the case of Germany and France. The second model is based on the use of price discrimination on traffic to ensure development of broadband infrastructure, as is followed in the UK and Korea. And finally, the third model that prescribes , a ‘fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory’ approach to deal with regulatory issues, such as is the practice in Korea or with ETNO.

Thus, it would appear that the question seems to be asking, Should TRAI regulate OTTs or allow telecom companies to negotiate directly with OTTs service providers on the issue of charging them for growing data traffic?. Surprisingly, however, there is another model that has been spelt out in Chapter 4, but oddly, is absent from the list of Queries at the end. This is the model which the USA is attempting to chart out for themselves, i.e.: ‘bright-line rules’ for the internet which includes principles of ‘no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization’ of data. In the US, ‘Reasonable Network Management’ is allowed, but the ISPs must ensure that network management have legitimate aims and are not used to provide ‘unlimited data’ or other anti-network neutrality practices.
Since the TRAI has looked to other countries for ideas and inspiration for developing an Indian model, it is fair to first examine the market that is being addressed. India has 12-15% internet penetration, with further rise expected via mobile phones. Today the country has 140 million smartphones, which are getting cheaper to buy, by the day, and 687 million GSM phones in rural areas. The internet is a vehicle of growth; outside of the acknowledged popularity of VoIP services, there is also the expectation that e-commerce will fuel internet growth as well. E-commerce generated sales of $16 billion in 2014, while overall the retail industry in India is valued at around $600 billion. Additionally, the government’s ‘Digital India’ initiative is also expected to fuel traffic; in fact, it already has in rural areas. Reports indicate that the first half of 2014 has seen 3.5 billion electronic transactions, of which 1.7 billion transactions were related to e-governance projects. 35% of these transactions came from rural areas. Broadly stated, content, commerce and e-governance will be drivers of the internet in India as much as infrastructure, availability of electricity, connectivity, access and pricing will be.

If one ignores the telecom arguments for paid prioritization and examines whether schemes like zero-rating would help promote internet penetration, a different set of questions emerge. Is it better for citizen-consumers to have access to some limited sites free of cost than to have no access at all? Can zero-rating, in some ways, be compared with “free sampling”, following which users might want to experience the larger internet? And, could paid prioritization packs be designed to become ‘Digital India’ packs, which could contain part commercial data, part news data, and part socially and locally relevant and useful data, thereby helping rural citizens to access both free content and also use e-governance apps at no cost? The answers cannot be simple, and perhaps they cannot be effectively answered by those who have no problem in paying monthly internet bills.

These questions are intriguing. A few years ago, internet users may remember, the expectation of users was that all content on the internet would be free. Some bigger brands attempted to start content-subscription based models, but actually, an advertising-based model today supports most of the freely available content. Internet users also pay for free content by surrendering their data . Ultimately, an innovative, even if a morally ambiguous model emerged, wherein consumers were connected to advertisers, which enabled ‘free’ content.

And this is when we start examining ‘free’ access that comes with its own caveat. Allowing citizen-consumers to access only certain websites for free, could over the long term, end up creating ‘walled gardens’ – a term which denotes a closed ecosystem in which the carrier or service provider has control over applications, content, and media, and restricts convenient access to non-approved applications or content. This goes against the principle of free and open qualities that have made the internet the tool it is today – an engine for economic growth and innovation. In fact, given that only those platforms which can afford to pay for prioritization would be offered for free, the entire exercise has an anti-competitive angle to it. And it must be noted that the conversation in India is looking at internet service providers breaching the network neutrality principle of ‘paid prioritization’ as opposed to a conversation about internet ‘fast lanes’ which have fuelled arguments in the US about preserving network neutrality.

If Indian ISPs were to offer varying degrees of speed to sites in a market already struggling with internet speeds, it would certainly mean that smaller and newer OTTs would be simply defeated by the internet wheel of time. Could this mean that the market leaders of today would simply institutionalize their leadership online, or could fundraising models for all future apps necessarily have to account for ‘zero-rating’ or ‘fast-lane’ charges?

So what should India do, going ahead? Create two competing versions of the internet; between those who would like to access the full spectrum of internet sites and those who would rather subscribe to digital packs which offer a few products at a zero-rating? Would this fulfill the government’s aim to achieve 50 crore internet connections by 2018, or is this what it means to have a ‘Digital India’? The Minister for Communications and IT has called the internet ‘the finest creation of human mind and it does not encounter any boundary and it does not get stopped by geography,” adding that it “must be owned by the entire mankind, not by a few.”

Perhaps, India should seek to strive for a balance between access and price, without surrendering on the network neutrality principles. Shouldn’t the telecom operators wait to see what new streams of revenues would develop for them as the internet grows in India? Shouldn’t companies be able to promote their brand in the country, but compromising on the key principles that has so far set the internet apart from other mediums of communication? And finally, shouldn’t people have a clear understanding of what the hidden costs of “free” really is, and if they are willing to pay for it?
One lakh emails to the regulator aside, this conversation is certainly not over. Ironically, what it has done is encourage 1 lakh people to engage with the bureaucracy, in a democratic system, by actually sending in their comments to the TRAI consultation paper. Now, imagine, if you didn’t even know about this because your internet pack only focused on cricket and movie songs?

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Rajya Sabha TV talking about France's New Surveillance Laws

I was on the "Big Picture" on Rajya Sabha TV talking about France's New Surveillance Laws and their Broader Implications ---

Do have a watch!