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Governing the virtual world

Governing the virtual world
Ever since Julian Assange and Wikileaks faced ‘denial of service’ from US-based internet entities and then Edward Snowden revealed the scope and complexity of the US National Security Agency’s (NSA) widespread surveillance of internet traffic across the world, the issue of internet governance has become more live than ever before.

The overwhelming dominance of the United States over internet infrastructure has been a matter of concern for countries like China, Russia, and ironically, even India - considering its tepid response to the Snowden revelations about the country being a primary target.
In 2001, the United Nations was moved by some of these countries along with a few others. The UN proposed World Summit on Internet Society (WSIS) was proposed to meet in two phases; one to be held in Geneva, Switzerland in 2003 and another in Tunis, Tunisia in 2005.

The latter meeting in 2005 saw the birth of the ‘Tunis Agenda,’ supposedly a rule-based superstructure that would govern the internet, at the moment run by the USA. While the primary goal of the ‘Agenda’ was to bridge the ‘digital divide’ in terms of access and usage of the internet between developed and the developing world, the issue within the decade of its inception has shifted to internet governance.

The para 69 of the Agenda states ‘We further recognize the need for enhanced cooperation in the future, to enable governments, on an equal footing, to carry out their roles and responsibilities, in international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet, but not in the day-to-day technical and operational matters, that do not impact on international public policy issues.’

Para 70 further clarifies, the ‘Enhanced Cooperation’ (EC) issue, ‘Using relevant international organizations, such cooperation should include the development of globally-applicable principles on public policy issues associated with the coordination and management of critical Internet resources. In this regard, we call upon the organizations responsible for essential tasks associated with the Internet to contribute to creating an environment that facilitates this development of public policy principles.’

It is this ‘EC’ term that has been latched onto by countries like, Iran, South Africa and Saudi Arabia and India that demanded the UN set-up an international body for the specific purpose of undertaking the tasks related to public policies governing the internet. The UN responded by setting up under the UNCTAD, the Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD).

Responding to the proposition of the CSTD, India’s permanent representative in Geneva, Dilip Sinha had stated: ‘India believes in the freedom of Internet and free deliberations on public policy for Internet Governance. In the light of the strategic nature of the Internet and its expansion, taking a global view in the overall interest of the global community on the issues of the public policy for Internet Governance would be the right approach. India would be pragmatic and flexible in its approach.’  

India is still keen on a multi-lateral, multi-stakeholder governance of the internet that would preclude an US monopoly of controlling the internet. In the follow-up stories of the million bits of information that Snowden leaked by various new publications it is now evident if you were on Google or Yahoo servers that were not based in the US, the NSA could still get into these servers with great alacrity and steal data concerning a person’s e-mails, search topics, documents and any other individual details. A November, 2013, meeting of the Working Group on Enhanced Cooperation – the second since its founding – the Permanent Representative of the India in Geneva, as a participant had to respond to a questionnaire. A query on how ‘enhanced cooperation’ has been implemented, the country was candid in its response.

It held that ‘enhanced cooperation’ as declared in paras 68 and 69 of the Tunis Agenda has not been implemented in any substantive measure. ‘There is no multilateral, transparent and democratic global platform where governments can, on an equal footing, decide the full range of international public policies related to internet, in a holistic manner. There is also no mechanism for the development of globally-applicable principles on public policy issues including those pertaining to coordination and management of critical Internet resources. Not establishing an Enhanced Cooperation process has denied the Governments an opportunity to carry out their roles and responsibilities in international public-policy issues pertaining to the internet.’

In other words, India and along with Brazil and South Africa are still on a waiting mode to make internet governance more democratic and more liberal than what the US and its allies wish it to be. 

The author is a senior journalist
Pinaki Bhattacharya

Pinaki Bhattacharya

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