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The Cold War for Internet Governance: What are India's Options?

08 Oct 2021
By Sanjeet Kashyap
Broadband Commission Annual Fall Meeting 2021. Source: ITU https://bit.ly/3Agz6sU

A prominent frontier in the Sino-US competition and the Quad’s agenda is tech and cyberspace governance. To tackle emerging security challenges, India would benefit from a modified multistakeholder approach to internet governance.

The first in-person Quad Leaders’ Summit at the White House announced a slew of cooperative measures, including a global vaccination drive, infrastructure buildup, a Quad fellowship for STEM students, greening of the shipping value chain, a semiconductor supply chain initiative, and a Track 1.5 industry dialogue to diversify 5G networks. Conspicuously omitted in the official Fact Sheet, though, is the mention of a single defense cooperation initiative. Experts, nonetheless, see the Quad as a means to counter China and foster cooperation on a range of issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

A 13 September White House statement identifies these two domains where the challenges of the 21st century  require “practical cooperation.” Likewise, a G7 ministerial communique released in May affirmed the grouping’s support for internet freedom. The White House’s June communique on the Cornwall G7 Summit voiced the Biden administration’s support for multistakeholder approaches to setting global technical standards in the cyber domain.

Contestation over internet governance

The contested domain of emerging tech and cyberspace governance encompasses a range of issues, including a ban on TikTok over data security concerns, data localisation, the semiconductor manufacturing industry, security implications of Huawei’s 5G installation, and new norms and protocols for 5G internet. What, though, are the underlying concerns fuelling competition over technology?

Both the G7 and Quad are self-styled groupings of like-minded liberal democracies cooperating on the pressing problems of the 21st century. Consequently, both a strategic concern over Chinese relative power gains in advanced tech and cyberspace, as well as the ideological incompatibility with the authoritarian vision of internet governance, fuel the competition.

What is not well-known is the way the field of internet governance has long been a contesting ground for the Digital Cold War. The battle is being fought for control over the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a seemingly unremarkable organisation that serves as a backbone of the internet governance architecture. ICANN works as the phonebook for internet users and is responsible for the IP address space allocation. As such, control over the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) function performed by ICANN would allow any entity to block access to specific internet addresses. The managerial power wielded by ICANN thus has significant political and geopolitical ramifications.

At the 2012 World Conference on International Telecommunication in Dubai, a proposal was sponsored by Russia and China to include the internet under the ambit of International Telecommunications Regulations (ITR). Seen as an authoritarian, statist attempt to encroach upon the domain of ICANN, the proposal faced resistance from a host of liberal democratic countries led by the United States.

The ICANN saga provides a plausible guidebook for two different possibilities for the future of internet governance. Driven by different ideological visions, the contesting multistakeholder and cyber sovereignty models of internet governance, which would determine the functioning of the internet, have emerged as the chief faultline in the competition over cyber governance.

Advocated by liberal-democratic countries, the multistakeholder model corresponds with a more diffused, bottom-up, multiple actors approach towards internet governance. This involves the participation of the government, civil society, private sector, academics, and technical experts in managing the logical layer of the internet. It gives due recognition to technical, policy, and ethical concerns brought by non-state actors. Proponents see the model as essential to both the stupendous commercial success and political freedom enabled by the global spread of the internet.

While such an arrangement has clearly worked well in keeping the internet open and accessible, the model has come under criticism from other nation-states for its lack of accountability to a sovereign authority.  Given the US held nominal but real control over ICANN until 2016, the tremendous growth in global internet use, the spread of social networking platforms, and the attendant socio-political impacts, many nation-states have been demanding more regulatory control to meet security challenges and enable representation in internet governance forums that reflect the changing demographics of web users.

The authoritarian challenge of cyber sovereignty

Russia and China, in particular, lie at the vanguard of efforts to impose Westphalian notions of sovereignty on internet governance. Russia has a neo-Hobbesian approach, in which the globalised and interconnected cyberspace needs to yield to the whims of the sovereign. Driven by security concerns, Russian state authorities stringently monitor and censor online content deemed unsuitable by the regime.  China, under the CCP, has enacted the Great Firewall and barriers to cross-border flows of data, effectively enabling the authoritarian government to maintain discretionary control over the content layer of the internet.

The cyber sovereignty proponents take two approaches to challenge the multistakeholder model. The first involves bringing cyberspace under sovereign control by controlling the physical and logical infrastructure of their national internet segment. Second, on the matter of transnational governance of the logical layer of the internet, they prefer a multilateral approach via intergovernmental organisations, especially the United Nations International Telecommunications Union (ITU). This would give nation-states a greater say over norms and technical standards related to internet architecture.

India’s approach to internet governance

India’s participation in the internet governance forum over the years has earned it the moniker of a swing state. In 2010, India was part of a coalition involving Russia and China that proposed giving governments veto power over the ICANN Board of Directors’ decisions. At the 2012 ITU meeting, however, India refused to cast its vote on the International Telecommunication Regulations and in doing so, sided with the liberal democratic bloc. At the 2012 Internet Governance Forum meeting in Baku, the then-minister for communications and information technology, Kapil Sibal, came out in favor of the multistakeholder approach.

However, at the NETmundial at Sao Paulo in 2014, India stepped back from signing the outcome statement favoring multistakeholderism. In 2015, though, then-Communications Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad announced India’s unequivocal support for multistakeholderism at ICANN-53 in Buenos Aires. Currently, the official website of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) declares the Indian government’s support for the multistakeholder approach, except for matters relating to national security, where governmental authority would reign supreme.

India’s shifting and middling stance at different internet governance forums over the years could be attributed to the bureaucratic orientation of concerned ministries. Owing to its continued engagement with the private sector and civil society actors, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology earlier supported multistakeholderism. On the other hand, given its involvement in state-dominated forums for global governance, the Ministry of External Affairs came to favor a multilateral approach to internet governance.

India’s nuanced multilateralism approach recognises the need for involving different stakeholders at the consultation level but gives implementation and enforcement authority to governments only. To stave off the authoritarian challenge to the multistakeholder model which has served the internet so well, India would do well to modify this stance.

Instead of nuanced multilateralism which privileges the state actor, India should adopt modified multistakeholderism, demanding effective representation and ensuring active participation in internet governance forums to reflect the shifting demographics of internet users and the complexity of issues involved. Further, in order to meaningfully participate in these forums, India needs to foster domestic capacity by encouraging civil society, academia, and private sector actors to participate in the policy formulation process.

The recent encroachment of both governments and large corporations in the multistakeholder process has actually crowded out the civil society participants . Desirable as it may be for nation-states to control the physical and logical infrastructure of the internet to tackle national security challenges, the costs of increasingly fragmented and globally incompatible internet silos cannot be ignored. New Delhi would do well to recognise the new reality of the interconnected world and find solutions to genuine national security threats within the multistakeholder form of internet governance.

Sanjeet Kashyap is a final year MA student in Politics and International Studies program at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Twitter: @sanjeet38.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.