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