Tuesday, September 25, 2012

India discusses proposals to regulate the internet

The Indian government’s proposal to the United Nations General Assembly, to form a 50-member United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) to “regulate” the internet has been met with controversy since it was tabled last October. On 19 September, one of India’s leading industry bodies, the Federation of Indian Chambers and Commerce Industry, FICCI, held a panel discussion bringing together government, business groups and civil society for the first time to debate the proposal.

Currently, a US-based nonprofit called the Internet Cooperation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) coordinates Internet domain names and IP addresses; with a sophisticated system of councils set up to address the concerns of various stakeholders (corporations, governments, Internet user groups, etc.) across the world.

Although the US government has no direct role in ICANN’s decision making process, many other governments have been increasingly uncomfortable with its seeming proximity to Washington. At the same time, governments have increasingly found that they need to rely on internet intermediaries (such as social networking sites) in order to censor content, and are looking for more direct control over these issues. The Indian press has questioned the government’s motives for the proposal, as it can be seen as taking internet governance away from multistakeholderism and the ICANN — and moving it more towards a bureaucratic, government-led UN committee.

Speaking on behalf of the government, Ambassador A Gopinath made a spirited case for the document at the panel discussion, emphasising that the CIRP is part of an effort to fill a need for “enhanced cooperation”, building on the political consensus achieved by the 2005 Tunis Agenda — the resulting document from the World Summit for Information Societies (WSIS), which was a series of discussions around bridging the digital divide. Even though Gopinath stressed that the CIRP would be transparent and multilateral, he was almost entirely drowned out by business voices as well as civil society members outraged by the government’s decision to present the proposal to the UN without consulting with them.

“CIRP seems like a solution in search of a problem,” said Rajeev Chandrasekhar, an Independent Member of Parliament.

Industry expert Kamlesh Bajaj, CEO of the Data Security Council of India, stressed that while governments may choose to focus on trademark and intellectual property issues, civil society is concerned with civil liberties regarding the Internet.

Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, president of the Foundation for Media Professionals, pointed out that the fear that governments seek to subtly control what people read and watch is real.

Panelists and members of the audience also raised concerns about authoritarian governments using the 50-member CIRP to seriously limit freedom of expression. The consensus was that the Indian government had failed on two accounts: consulting industry and civil society groups before drafting the CIPR, and later, in adequately explaining why this was not done.

As the way forward, many speakers suggested that the Indian government either withdraw the proposal or seek to revise it after holding further discussions with the public. As Sunil Abraham of the Centre for Internet and Society said, “the proposal would have won more friends if it was clearer about if it wants to regulate, and whom it wants to regulate.”

The government assertion that CIRP would be a “quick-footed and timely” decision-making body was laughed at because it would — by its own suggestion — meet for only two weeks in the year. Behind the scenes, sources suggest that the Indian government’s enthusiasm for pushing this proposal has waned, even at the highest levels. Perhaps this forum, which FICCI admitted was encouraged by the Minister for Communications and Information Technology, is a first step to revise this position.


1 comment:

egg style said...

Government regulation of the Internet would be an awful thing. Instead, why don't they hire a group of talented ethical anti-hate-speech hackers and generate software that would expunge hate speech?