I’m a 21-year-old girl living and studying in India – a country that has witnessed a sea wave of change in the global internet users’ atlas in recent years. With over 460 million internet users, India is the second-largest online market, ranked only behind China. By 2021, there will be about 635.8 million internet users in India. And about 30% of those internet users will be women. Although the conventional and technical definition might say that the internet refers to a global network of interconnected computers/networks, in the recent times, for women especially, the internet has meant “emancipation, education, enlightenment, employment, and entertainment” – a port to ship & sail ideas and movements, campaigns and commitments, thoughts and actions – the channel through which the world’s till now hiding and silent, suppressed and under-confident women explore a little more about themselves while also being in fascination of their “yet to be explored” facets. Thus, the internet connects not only computers but also women’s low-pitched voices to their high-pitched revolutionary ideas. As a woman, according to me, there couldn’t have been a greater gift and a better scientific advent than the internet!
But in this rapidly evolving an internet-reliant and internet-addicted world of ours where a majority of our information is harbored online, it’s important to govern the manifestation of information online, on the internet. Thus, I’d (previously) always been curious about – how the internet works? Who owns it? Who rules it? These are the questions that drew me to the arena of “internet governance”. I made a very humble debut as a member of the Delhi Chapter of the Internet Society in 2018 and somehow grabbed the opportunity to participate in a variety of IG-related programs.
In March 2019, I was 20, probably the youngest person in the crowd, when I stepped into the spellbindingly spectacular Hall of the magnificent Kobe Portopia Hotel as a NextGen representative of India for ICANN64 meeting in Kobe, Japan. One thing that this ICANN meeting primarily focused on is “GDPR – General Data Protection Regulation”. This is an EU regulation that mandates that firms seek an EU Citizen’s consent and permission for data usage and disclosure. I was a part of the At-Large meeting where there were two groups – the group that supported the government’s intervention, decision, and hence, regulation in regards to the privacy of public data online and then, there was another which said: “why should the government get to say anything at all in this – what empowers the government to control who does what on the internet”. The discussion, as was destined, didn’t reach a consensus. But it actually raised a legitimate question – who gets to regulate the internet or should the internet be regulated at all?
Let’s explore this question through some examples.
The Internet is an important medium of inflow of information. But in the past few years, India has been an audience to and a victim of the most frequent number of internet shutdowns (the numbers crossing 80 even before the mid of 2018). And the most recent, glaring example is the over 60 days internet shutdown in Kashmir (India) post the abrogation of Article 370. With such incessant counts and extended, unprecedented, unchecked periods of internet shutdowns in a rapidly expanding online economy, the democratic rights of people to be informed (without bias, with facts) are badly infringed upon. While the Government seems to be keen on shutting down the internet every now and then in the name of safeguarding national security and social harmony, is it actually democratic to disrupt the flow of information? Should the government have the “ultimate say” in matters related to the internet too?
In June 2013, exposés in The Washington Post and The Guardian revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) had tapped directly into the servers of nine internet firms, including Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Yahoo, to track online communication in a surveillance program called Prism. So, letting the government decide over matters of the internet can be risky, right?
But in the absence of regulatory measures, we all are aware of how 540 million Facebook users’ data records were publicly exposed to Amazon Cloud Computing service. So, who do we trust with internet access and policy?
I myself hail from a state (Odisha) that is frequently wrecked by Naxalites who themselves use the internet to hack websites and/or send online threats but they’re also the same people who invade internet spaces and disrupt the flow of Internet services by bombarding towers and signal systems. Hence, without a designated central body controlling the internet, will unconditional access to the internet become an asset for antisocial elements to perpetrate crimes? So, should we then let the government “have the last word” in internet-related policymaking?
Cryptocurrencies are digital currencies which use encryption techniques to regulate the generation and verification of funds transfer. In April 2018, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) issued a circular prohibiting banks and financial institutions in India from providing services in relation to cryptocurrencies. But the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), a not-for-profit industry body with the mission to expand and enhance the online and mobile value-added services sectors, told the Supreme Court of India that the RBI did not have the authority to place a ban as there was no legislative policy in place for virtual currencies. Further IAMAI said that the RBI had banned cryptocurrencies on “moral grounds” as no prior studies were conducted to analyze the effect of these virtual currencies on the economy. IAMAI, therefore, projected that such a blanket ban was “arbitrary, unfair and unconstitutional”. So, who gets to decide what should/not be traded online?
Who is to be held “responsible” with and for the internet?
This responsibility is far beyond our minimalist “like, post, share” understanding of the internet. Being responsible with the internet MUST include safe and secured maintenance of, affordable and universal access to, and conscientious use of the internet whereas being responsible for the internet MUST include how internet-related conflicts can be eliminated and how internet-related grievances can be redressed – who should frame the internet laws basing on what and for whom?
Internet Governance doesn’t & shouldn’t entail the automatic & authority of the government because the government, after all, is itself a body of people trying to formulate policies for more people. People can and will most likely be arbitrary leading to a situation of tyranny as we’ve observed in some of the above instances. If the internet, which is based on the ideology of “freedom”, cannot be uninhibited then, doesn’t that defeat the entire purpose of the invention?
And if the government doesn’t regulate activities on the internet then, who guarantees people’s safety and security online?
A similar dilemma arose in the post-World War II years of the 1940s when all the countries were certain about eliminating every iota of the probability of another World War but weren’t certain about who should supervise and guarantee this act? Isn’t that how the UN was born? The UN was birthed because a community of nations gathering together to discuss their stalemates to arrive at a consensus was thought of to be way better than those nations gathering together on the battlefield to shed blood. In the UN, no one’s boss but everyone’s got an equal say – every country, every organization, every interest group.
There’s a similar organization that could very well act as the “UN of the Internet Governance Space” and that is ICANN. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a nonprofit organization responsible for the technical maintenance, and stable and secure operation of the internet. It can be an appropriate body for the regulation of the internet primarily because of the principle it’s built upon – multi-stakeholder community approach. ICANN is composed of multiple advisory committees that advise on the interests and needs of stakeholders that do not directly participate in but are directly affected by the technical maintenance and operation of the internet. These include the Governmental Advisory Committee (GAC), which is composed of representatives from 111 national governments from all over the world (108 UN Members); the At-Large Advisory Committee (ALAC), which is composed of individual Internet users from around the world (I’m a member of Asia-Pacific RALO) and Nominating Committee; the Root Server System Advisory Committee provides advice on the operation of the DNS root server system, the Security and Stability Advisory Committee (SSAC) explores the security issues pertaining to ICANN’s mandate; and the Technical Liaison Group (TLG) is composed of delegates of other international technical organizations that research on the Internet.
Thus, there definitely lies an ethical responsibility to regulate the internet because, with the possibility of stepping into an extremely technologically driven scientific world in the near future, it’s important to guard internet-related conspiracies and crimes capable of provoking World War III – which, this time, might mis/abuse the cyberspace to wreak havoc.
About the writer
Ananya Singh (NetMission Ambassador of class 2019/20, India)
Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, BJB Autonomous College