India formally proposes government takeover of Internet

The Indian government has formally proposed a government takeover of the Internet at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

In a statement sent yesterday, India argued for the creation of a new body to be called the United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies (CIRP) which would develop Internet policies, oversee all Internet standards bodies and policy organizations, negotiate Internet-related treaties, and act as an arbitrator in Internet-related disputes.

The CIRP would exist under the United Nations, comprise of 50 Member States, be funded by the United Nations, run by staff from the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) arm, and report directly to the UN General Assembly.

Despite the proposal representing an extraordinary shift from the status quo to a single, purely government-run Internet body, India’s spokesman, Mr Dushyant Singh, argued that the proposal “should not be viewed as an attempt by governments to ‘take over’ or ‘regulate and circumscribe’ the Internet.”

In a nod to the multi-stakeholder model of decision-making that currently defines much of the Internet’s processes - and where all actors from business to academia to the technical community and governments are given equal say in decisions - the Indian proposal foresees the creation of four “Advisory Groups” that would represent civil society, the private sector, inter-governmental and international organizations, and the technical and academic community.

Those groups would provide recommendations to the CIRP. The CIRP would consider them, along input from the existing Internet Governance Forum, at an annual two-week conference at the UN building in Geneva and then present its own subsequent recommendations to the UN General Assembly.

Government fantasy

Although the proposal comes with the endorsement of the Indian government, and can expect to pick up support from South Africa and Brazil within the UN General Assembly, it is perhaps best described as a government fantasy Internet model.

The suggested model broadly assumes that all the current complex Internet governance mechanisms can be neatly contained with in a box with a UN label stamped on the side. Governments would be put in the position of receiving the wisdom from advisory groups and then deciding the best way forward. That is the governmental model that has been in place for over 100 years, so it is understandable that government representatives are persuaded of its viability.

However the CIRP ignores the extensive consultations held between 2003 and 2005 at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) where business, the technical community and civil society walked through the unique distributed nature of the Internet and ultimately persuaded a majority of governments that the solution lies not in governments taking charge but in recognizing the significant benefits that came from a “multi-stakeholder” model that allows for equal access to decision-making for all bodies.

Cultural mindsets are very difficult to change however and in the past two years, a number of governments have begun to view the issue again in terms of them needing to be in a position of control. That situation was not helped by the decision by one of the key Internet organizations, ICANN, to disregard advice from governments on the inclusion of the dot-xxx Internet extension and to embark on a bizarre battle of wills with regard to the rules for creating hundreds of new Internet extensions.

The start

A very similar proposal to that proposed this week was published by a joint group of the Indian, South African and Brazilian governments just prior to the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Nairobi last month and caused some controversy when it clearly implied that the proposal came with the support of civil society and the technical community.

Its recommendations, which also foresaw all Internet organizations being pulled under the control of a new government-run United Nations body, were disowned by civil society and they then received a definitive thumbs-down from the broader Internet community during the IGF open session on “critical Internet resources”, during which the Indian government representative stated that the paper had only been put out for discussion.

Despite the very negative response to that paper, however, the Indian government pressed ahead with discussions on the exact same lines at an IBSA Summit on 18 October in Durban, South Africa. And the result of that meeting was the proposal put to the UN General Assembly yesterday.

Dushyant Singh MP as he introduces the proposal

Enhanced cooperation

India explicitly referenced the results of WSIS, the Tunis Agenda, and argued that its proposal was in response to the failure for any real movement on the issue of “enhanced cooperation”.

That frustration has long been known and in many respects it is understandable for developing countries for whom the term was taken to mean improved efforts between governments that would give them greater say over the Internet’s evolution.

However, developed countries that have the most invested in the current Internet infrastructure, possess the lion’s share of the Internet’s infrastructure providers, dominate the majority of the Internet’s standards and policy bodies and derive the most benefit from the status quo, have resisted efforts to have government-only discussions and instead promoted and defended the multi-stakeholder model.

Countries that do not possess a strong civil society, who maintain strong government control on business, or do not possess significant technical skills or infrastructure are at a significant disadvantage under the multi-stakeholder model.

It is not just a developing versus developed world argument though: the more open model of decision-making has been behind the spectacular success of the Internet in the first place, not to mention the fact that government intervention on the Internet over the past decade has proven itself time and time again as something that is at best ineffective and at worst damaging.

Pragmatics

Cultural clash aside, there are also strong pragmatic reasons for why the multi-stakeholder model of decision-making is a better one for the Internet.

Having been designed and developed by the technical community and private sector, the Internet possesses within it countless provisions and protocols that work through reciprocation. No node on the Internet is any more important than another. And those nodes can appear and disappear without impacting the network itself.

It is this nature, specifically designed for its resiliency, that makes the Internet as an entity almost impossible to control. The only effective solution is to develop policies and protocols that are embraced by the majority, and to allow those changes to propagate across the network.

Since no one can “tell” the Internet what to do, it has grown its own strong sense of autonomy and that is reflected in the multi-stakeholder concept that allows anyone impacted by a decision to get involved in its creation.

The reality is that even if the CIRP model were to be approved by the United Nations and adopted, the same problems would continue to arise, except with a government body in charge, there would be an additional layer of political debate and delay between the problem and the solution.

Moreover, it is very possible that the public sector and technical community – without whom the Internet would cease to function - would refuse to engage with a UN process that actively excluded them from decisions.

The real risks

Of course what should happen and what could happen may be two different things.

Many governments are uncertain and some are wholly opposed to a global decision-making process that does not put government representatives in the driving seat.

Due to a wide number of political factors, it is quite possible that the UN General Assembly could approve a plan that awarded itself oversight powers of the Internet, despite what would be vociferous arguments against the idea.

It is also possible that over time, the various Internet organizations could be pulled under the UN body through political pressure and legislation. And it is possible that the private sector and technical community could be persuaded that the status quo had simply changed and it was in their greater interests to co-operate.

The end result of that process however would likely undermine the very factors that have made the Internet such a powerful and positive influence over the past 10 years. National governments will always be focused on where their borders lie, whereas the Internet was specifically developed to ignore such borders.

Internet governance stands at a crucial juncture. Many of the world’s governments remain unsure and uncertain about the need to give away their one overriding power – the ability to make binding decisions. While on the other side, some countries as well as the private sector, civil society and technical community have fully embraced a new model of decision-making that allows for broader and more open decision-making.

Which way the decision falls will be a crucial debate and very likely decide the future ability of the Internet to continue on its extraordinary path.