Following outrage from India’s civil society and media, it appears the country’s government has backed away from its proposal to create a UN body to govern the internet. The controversial plan, which was made without consulting civil society, angered local stakeholders, including academics, media, and industry associations. Civil society expressed fear that a 50-member UN body, many of whom would seek to control the internet for their own political ends, would restrict the very free and dynamic nature of the internet. The proposal envisaged “50 member States chosen on the basis of equitable geographic representation” that would meet annually in Geneva as the UN Committee for Internet-Related Policies (UN-CIRP).
Rajeev Chandrasekhar, Indian parlimentarian and critic of the proposal, said: “CIRP seems like a solution in search of a problem”. At present, ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a non-profit with ties to the US State Department, serves as the platform for internet governance, using an organisational structure that allows input from the wider internet community and not just governments of the world.
However at the 4-5 October Conference on Cyberspace in Budapest, the Minister of State for Telecom, Sachin Pilot, indicated that India was moving away from the “control of the internet by government or inter-governmental bodies”, and moving instead towards enhanced dialogue. Pilot has now confirmed the change to Index, saying that the Indian government has now decided to “nuance” its former position.
The sudden move can be explained by India’s decision to now develop its own stance, claiming that it was initially just supporting proposals made at the India, Brazil and South Africa seminar (IBSA) on Global Internet Governance in Brazil in September 2011. However, there are indicators that the country might have played an active role in pushing for the new body.
The government representatives present at the IBSA seminar drafted a set of recommendations focused on institutional improvement, which pushed for the UN to establish a body “in order to prevent fragmentation of the internet, avoid disjointed policymaking, increase participation and ensure stability and smooth functioning of the internet”. The proposal was to be tabled until the IBSA Summit on 18 October 2011, but according to a Daily Mail report, Indian bureaucrats publicly discussed the proposal at the 2011 Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Kenya, saying that the move “was criticised across the board by all countries and scared away both Brazil and South Africa.” The report also alleges that the Indian government only consulted one NGO — IT for Change — in drafting the proposal presented in Brazil, despite repeated offers from other participants to pay for members of the country’s third sector to participate in the seminar. India’s proposed UN-CIRP was slammed for moving away from multi-stakeholderism and instead opting for government-led regulation.
Whatever the truth behind the Indian government’s motives in proposing UN-CIRP, its new and more “nuanced” position is a welcome move. It remains to be seen if India will maintain its new stance at the upcoming IGF, which will be held from 6-9 November in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Mahima Kaul is a journalist based in New Delhi. She focuses on questions of digital freedom and inclusion