It is taken as gospel that India has a significant stake in the open, borderless global internet that all of us have become accustomed to. So far, however, it has not played a major role in shaping the norms and technical institutions that govern the internet. Recent domestic policy proposals across areas such as data localisation, data protection, and e-commerce, show that the government is willing to tread new ground at home. Will this translate to a newfound boldness on the international stage as well?
The internet is a largely self-governing network-of-networks, with the underlying technical standards developed by a loose network of volunteer-based organisations. No one ‘controls’ the internet, but if there is any entity with a level of influence approaching that, it is the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN, a private US corporation, administers the domain name system (DNS) which serves as the Internet’s telephone directory. It also makes policy with respect to key aspects of the internet’s infrastructure such as the root servers and handles the security of the DNS through the obscure and arcane ‘key signing key’ ceremony. ICANN has its origins in the US academic community, but over the years has become a global organisation that serves as the arbiter between the stakeholders who shape its policies, including the private sector, governments, the technical community, and civil society. Together, these stakeholder groups under the ICANN umbrella form the core of what is known within the niche world of global internet governance policy as the ‘multistakeholder model’, which has been the subject of some controversy and diplomatic wrangling.
The core technical protocols and standards underlying the internet, such as TCP/IP and BGP, are developed within another ‘multistakeholder’ body, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is a fully volunteer-driven effort. Other bodies such as the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) round out the institutions (often referred to as the I* organisations) which shape the internet’s technical guts.
Over the years, these technical institutions have largely been dominated by US and Western European countries (along with Japan) simply because the companies driving internet innovation and growth were located there. More recently, China has become influential as well, as its companies have moved up the value chain from manufacturing to innovation. On the internet ‘code is law’, and the ability to shape protocols comes with substantial influence over the character of the global internet.
From ICANN’s inception in 1991 until 2011, India was largely absent from the scene. In 2011, however, India championed an idea at the UN known as the Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP), a 50-member body within the UN which would eventually assume control of many of ICANN’s functions. The proposal was initially meant to be backed by the BRICS countries, but it quickly ran into controversy and India was left isolated, eventually dropping the proposal in the face of intense US and European pressure.
India retreated from the scene subsequently, until the Snowden revelations in 2013 thrust ICANN into the spotlight again because of its deep links to the US government. Facing the possibility of a renewed push from countries including China and Russia for a UN body to ‘control’ the internet, the US chose to proactively announce the ‘IANA transition’ in 2014, the process of turning ICANN into an independent body free of all contractual and legal links to the US government.
Behind the scenes, intense lobbying emphasised the importance of the multistakeholder model’s vision of the open, borderless internet to India’s economy. India initially chose strategic ambivalence regarding the IANA transition, hedging bets by echoing the language of ‘democratising the internet’ (often meant as a coded reference to UN or other multilateral governance mechanisms) within BRICS settings, but happy to mention the multistakeholder model approvingly in meetings with Western officials.
Surprising many commentators at the time, China came out in unambiguous support of the IANA transition part way into the process, redoubling its involvement in ICANN and expressing confidence in its governance mechanisms. The dichotomy between the closed-off intranet that is the Chinese internet and the support for ICANN’s open model was not lost on most people. But it was a pragmatic choice, rooted in the importance of an open internet for the international growth of the Chinese internet giants which were already approaching saturation in their home market.
China’s move left India with less room to manoeuvre — without Chinese support, an effective technical and policy alternative to ICANN became much more remote. India’s final decision to fully support ICANN came at its Buenos Aires meeting in June 2015, where India’s IT minister delivered a speech that spoke effusively of the benefits of the multistakeholder model. In an indication of the importance of India’s support, ICANN decided to hold its landmark 57th meeting, where the IANA transition would finally be completed, in Hyderabad.
In other fora such as the IETF or the W3C where work is led by major private corporations and technical experts, India’s presence has been mostly negligible.
While these multistakeholder bodies deal largely with the technical aspects of the internet, the shaping of broader norms related to the use of the internet takes place at a number of other fora. The UN Group of Governmental Experts (UNGGE) leads the field in figuring out how the international laws of war and peace apply online. The WTO and other multilateral trade bodies deal with cross-border data flows and barriers to digital trade. The OECD shapes thought on issues such as taxation of online businesses, while the UN Internet Governance Forum serves as a big-tent talk shop for all stakeholder to discuss what they believe is important when it comes to internet policy.
India is in a peculiar position because, despite the size of its market and the importance of India to the global internet, its contribution to the technical evolution of the internet remains negligible. Efforts over the last decade to increase its influence in the technical institutions related to internet governance keep running into a very hard wall: Indian companies and academic institutions are simply not at the cutting edge of R&D which results in standard-setting. In the absence of this, it is near impossible to increase clout within standards-driven bodies such as the IETF or W3C. Top-down efforts by the government to spark interest and participation in these bodies by Indian researchers have not borne fruit. And within ICANN, the two most powerful groups are arguably the domain name registries and registrars, and IP rights holders, both of which groups feature almost no Indian companies.
China, on the other hand, has swiftly increased its profile in these bodies, with Chinese telecom and internet companies sponsoring participation by their employees, and pushing their agendas in battles over new technical standards. The ICANN board has had at least one Chinese member for many years now, and the Chinese public and private sector companies are prominent sponsors of ICANN meetings. This is simply a reflection of the state of the Chinese internet and telecom hardware industries, which now compete technically and financially with the best of the US and Western Europe.
What India can do is double down on norm-shaping, and concentrate resources on the policy, legal, and diplomatic battles behind this.