It would be difficult, if not impossible to imagine existence without the World Wide Web. It is so very much a part of our daily lives. We take it for granted. Equally, not many of us are aware or even care to educate ourselves about the genesis of this indispensable part of our existence. Efforts began in Western, particularly US, Universities in the 1950s and 1960s to link computers, catalog libraries and later for military operations. The World Wide Web, as we know it today, is perhaps quarter of a century old.
Existence without the World Wide Web is indeed unimaginable today. More important, should this public good suddenly not be available any longer, the destabilization and chaos that would ensue would also be difficult to imagine.
Worldwide, there are over two billion subscribers. Around 40% of the world’s over 7-billion population has an internet connection today. It was less than 1% two decades ago. On balance, most assessments of the internet would be extremely positive. The use of communication technology by ISIS or ISIL, the unwanted child of a neglected occupation, that of Iraq in 2003 has, however, set alarm bells ringing. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), is the first terrorist group that has grown up on the internet, that is exploiting the power of the web and poses an unprecedented danger to the world. Unlike other terrorist groups, it has both the ability to hold territory and the aspiration to run institutions of the State. It uses messaging and social media services such as twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp to recruit, disseminate its message and spread terror.
We in India need to be clear about where we started, where we are today and where we are headed. When we were preparing for the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS-I) in 2003 in Geneva, India’s internet penetration was less than 2%. Our total penetration today is still less than 20%. We add 5 million internet users every month and our total of 200 million is likely to increase to 500 million internet subscribers by 2018.
The Internet is an indispensable tool for socio-economic development. All nations have benefitted from its rapid growth and expansion in the past two decades. The government of Prime Minister Modi has launched a Digital India campaign, which is gaining traction. The Modi government’s Digital India campaign is audaciously ambitious. The Modi government plans to expand rural internet coverage to 250,000 villages by 2017 from the existing 130,000 in two years. 150,000 post offices will be transformed into multi-utility centres (providing a range of government services, banking for instance, and not just postal services). Some 250,000 government schools will get broadband and free WiFi and all schoolbooks will have e-versions.
India’s 200 million internet users are set to cross the half billion mark by 2017. India will have one of the largest numbers of users in the world.
The internet is becoming an increasingly important strategic, economic and social tool. Economic and social development, growth through enhanced connectivity and affordability, the leveraging of our demographic dividend through mass online skill dissemination and education will be fundamental for India’s survival and growth. We will need to pursue our interests in and on a host of public policy issues such as multilingualism, domain name allocations, net neutrality etc. Our IT companies will want to climb the global value chain ladder by creating a more level playing ground, beyond the monopoly of a few mega-corporations and diversifying our ICT exports to new economic partners.
Some developments in the past two years have caused concern to national security establishment in countries like India.
The use of cyber-weapons, global programmes of signals intelligence collection, sophisticated means of surveillance on a global scale, sharing pools of collected intelligence, close structured alliances among select national security establishments are the more obvious that will be mentioned in any discussion. More worrying still is that these developments did not resonate strongly enough in our domestic discourse which was derailed by both those in the knowledge of what was happening and those still uninitiated in understanding the far reaching consequences of what was and is still taking place. Many fell easy prey to the profoundly misleading argument that there is no harm in large-scale data collection and most important, the systematic and fraternal participation as ‘indispensable collaborators’ by global Internet majors in ‘enduring security framework’ in these activities.
What are we witnessing today? On the one hand, governments force agreements on major Internet companies to part with big data; on the other, the companies oblige willingly to share private data with government security agencies. Governments in most developing countries were helpless spectators when powerful Internet majors shared such data from their countries with governments where the latter were located. Quite apart from the commercial uses such data was and is being put to, the implications – whether for domestic politics, communal harmony, potential for destabilization and so on – are unimaginable.
The specious argument that since the internet is a global good, individual countries have nothing to fear and ‘sovereignty is of no relevance’ is mind-boggling. The courts gave away the .ir (dot IR) domain name to a private group which impacted Iran’s sovereign rights. Similarly, another US court ruled that data stored on Microsoft servers in Ireland was subject to US laws. Quite apart from obvious issues of sovereignty, there is no reciprocity available to other nations seeking data from servers based in the US.
What is really tragic is that the debate on global Internet governance in the past decade has been conducted on a false note – as being directed against human rights, or as an attempt to wrest control from or replace ICANN, the private sector entity that manages the internet in the United States, altogether. Nothing could be further from the truth. Countries with increasing stakes in the internet are legitimately concerned at the way the Internet is managed. Demands that the current model be democratized more and they be given voice and participation in global Internet governance arise only because they want to reduce their vulnerability. By no stretch of imagination could this be interpreted as trying to subvert or replace ICANN.
The debate on human rights is equally false. Attempts by India and other countries to democratize Internet governance are sometimes deliberately mischaracterised as aimed at eroding freedom of speech and expression. The Indian Constitution provides this as a justiceable fundamental right. No official policy or action could dare endorse any suggestion or proposal that could even remotely have the effect of undermining this right directly or indirectly. This should be assurance enough for the skeptics. The Head of the GCHQ, Robert Hannigan’s article in the Financial times last week is instructive in this respect too, calling, as it does, for a mature debate on privacy in the digital age, and on the misuse of the Internet.
Every time the question of democratizing global Internet governance is raised, entrenched interest subvert the debate by raising the bogey of ‘multi-stakeholderism being in danger’. There is, in fact, no such danger. Yes, some of the entrenched interests feel threatened, as advocates of user and consumer interests demand that their voices be heard as well.
Trust had been placed earlier in the philosophy of self-restraint and self-regulation by corporate entities themselves. Recent developments and revelations show that the optimism in this respect was somewhat misplaced. The time may have come to look at some external regulation, without in any way undermining the right to freedom of speech and expression and the right to privacy. As Hannigan points out, new deals will need to be worked out between democratic governments and technology companies in the area of protecting citizens. Such deals cannot and should not ignore the interests and concerns of users and citizens.
Those who exercise dominant control on internet governance raise the bogey about splintering the internet – splinternet – every time others with the possible potential raise issues about creating their local networks.
It is the dominance and, one might add, rigid dominance which will ultimately prove to be problematic and constitute the strongest arguments in favour of splinternet. The Snowden revelations have created major worries about sovereign national security. Traction in favour of splinternet could be just one but important by product.
The following excerpted from the blog by Shane Harris in The Daily Beast, is, to say the least, instructive.
The former head of the world’s biggest spy agency didn’t just oversee the collection of billions of AT&T records. He also tried to make money off its customers.
At the same time Gen. Keith Alexander was running the National Security Agency, the United States’ biggest spying outfit, he was also trading stocks in an obscure technology company that had a sweetheart deal with one of the NSA’s most important sources of intelligence-the global phone and Internet giant AT&T.
The deal between AT&T and Synchronoss wasn’t a secret, but Alexander’s financial stake in it was. The NSA only handed over his financial-disclosure forms showing that he was an investor in October, following a lawsuit by investigative journalist Jason Leopold. The agency initially had claimed that revealing any of Alexander’s investments could jeopardize national security.
On Jan. 7, 2008, Alexander sold shares in the Aluminum Corporation of China Ltd., also known as Chinalco, a state-owned enterprise based in Beijing that’s now the second-largest producer of aluminium in the world. Less than a month later, Alcoa, the American aluminum giant, announced a strategic partnership with Chinalco to buy a $14 billion stake in Rio Tinto, as part of an effort to derail a hostile bid by another firm for the world’s third-largest mining company.
U.S. investigators now believe that three weeks after the partnership was struck, Chinese computer hackers working for the People’s Liberation Army began spying on Alcoa in order to steal proprietary information that would benefit Chinalco and give the Chinese government an insight into the negotiations. The intruders made off with nearly 3,000 email messages and more than 800 attachments related to the deal. (Federal prosecutors spelled out the allegations in an indictment that refers to an anonymous Chinese state-owned enterprise, but it leaves virtually no doubt that the company is Chinalco.)
In other words, at the same time Alexander was selling off his stake in Chinalco, U.S. intelligence was monitoring Chinalco and keeping tabs on other Chinese cyberspies. Indeed, just a few months after the hacking campaign against Alcoa began, the NSA’s former inspector general gave an interview to National Journal, in which he blamed China for a massive campaign of cyberespionage against several U.S. companies, stealing trade secrets and proprietary information “in volumes that are just staggering.”
Alexander was investing in a company that was in the crosshairs of his own agency’s surveillance operations. If that had been known at the time, it would have raised questions about conflicts of interest and why the head of the NSA was taking personal stakes in a Chinese company.
The national debate in India on global governance of the internet should not be allowed to be orchestrated and manipulated by commercial interests or their proxies. It should be expanded to include powerful voices of those keen to safeguard the interests of users of the internet. It should involve all stakeholders, including the government and its agencies. India is not only the world’s largest democracy but a large canvas on which the entire range of issues related to Internet Governance will resonate and hopefully find resolution to serve as an example for the rest of the world.