An India-backed proposal to regulate the Internet found support of nearly half the 193 member countries of the United Nations' International Telecommunication Union in late 2012. Yet, the resulting treaty is creating conflicts at home for India's government.
The proposal was presented during the World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai in December 2012.
Curiously though, India is not among the 89 countries that signed the resulting communications treaty, which revises existing ITU regulations. That's because the treaty contains the controversial Article 5B, which can be interpreted as extending government control over the Internet. Article 5B, innocuously titled "Unsolicited Bulk Electronic Communications," states:
Member States should endeavor to take necessary measures to prevent the propagation of unsolicited bulk electronic communications and minimize its impact on international telecommunication services. Member States are encouraged to cooperate in that sense.
A coalition of 55 countries, including the United States, refused to be taken in by this section. Blocking spam would require the use of Internet control tools that help identify such content. While many governments may already be engaging in this practice selectively, opponents to this portion of the treaty argue that a UN-backed approval may give governments a free hand to use filtering tools, blocking mechanisms, and snoop ware that curb freedom of information.
Thus 2013 sees a digital-era cold war of sorts: Western nations, including the US, UK, and most European countries, oppose the move while Russia, The United Arab Emirates, and China support it.
If not for the controversial Article 5B, the UN-backed ITU's resolution "to foster an enabling environment for the greater growth of the Internet" might have provided India the right impetus to sign the treaty. India has long been pushing for the establishment of a UN Committee for Internet Related Policies. However, the proposal has not found favor with industry, civic society, and media within the country. Hence the government is found making contradictory statements.
Now, there is some positive response in India over a reported UN decision to set up a working group to review the mandate of agencies administering the Internet. According to a letter reportedly sent in December 2012 from the UN to the Indian government, the working group would do so "through seeking, compiling and reviewing inputs from all member states and all other stakeholders."
Who really runs the Internet?
At present, the Internet is administered by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-governmental organization based in the US. However, many observers are rankled by what they feel is political oversight by the US of the organization. They draw this conclusion by virtue of the IANA contract with ICANN, as well as the US Department of Commerce (DoC) contract with Verisign.
ICANN handles allocation of address blocks to the Regional Internet Registries, assignment of unique protocol numbers, and management of DNS root zone files. However, all edits made to the root zone files have to be audited and approved by the US DoC, including any addition or removal of a top-level domain (TLD). This includes the addition or removal of country-code top-level domains (ccTLDs) such as .in or .uk.
The DoC contract with Verisign, which operates two of the master root servers and the .com and .net TLDs, requires the US-based company to implement all the technical coordination decisions made through ICANN and follow the US Executive Directives regarding the root zone files. Thus, it is felt by some observers that Critical Internet Resources (CIRs) are under control of the US government and that this should be remedied through a multilateral governance structure.
While the Indian government has been trying its best to mobilize public opinion in favor of the new ITU Treaty in both domestic and international forums, it has failed to find support from key technology industry players. For example:
- The Internet and Mobile Association of India, which boasts global Internet companies such as Google, Facebook, eBay, and Yahoo as members, has said the ITU should stick to telecom matters and not stray into information and communication technology.
- The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce fears that signing the treaty would force India to cooperate with other countries to control political and commercial content.
- The Cellular Operators Association of India has questioned the wisdom of bringing regional Internet exchanges under the ITU’s purview, as it would then oversee commercial agreements for Internet traffic exchanges.
- The Internet Service Providers Association of India has pointed out that the private sector would be denied a voice in any UN body.
Little wonder the Indian government is taking its time to sign that treaty.