By Chinmayi Arun and Sarvjeet Singh
The post originally appeared in The Hindu on 20th July 2015.
With the government’s decision to call for public comment and response, the recent consultations on net neutrality are a step in the right direction.
India declared its support for multi-stakeholder governance of the Internet at the ICANN 53 meeting in Buenos Aires and at the first Preparatory Meeting for the U.N. General Assembly’s overall review of the implementation of the World Summit on Information Society outcomes earlier this month. This, in combination with the government’s efforts at consultative policy-making in the context of net neutrality, may signal the beginning of a more discursive approach to communication policy.
India’s statements at both meetings have drawn attention thanks to the country’s place in the decade-old furious debate still raging over global Internet governance. Countries such as the U.S. and Germany have advocated a ‘multi-stakeholder’ model that consults governments, industry, civil society and technical community while making decisions that affect the Internet. This is consistent with these countries’ domestic approach to communication policy, which includes independent regulators that conduct wide consultations and frame policy after accounting for the concerns of various stakeholders. India has opposed this point of view in the past, favouring the ‘multilateral model’ in which national governments make decisions through an equal vote, arguing that this is the most equitable model. This has been consistent with India’s domestic command-control communication policy, which has tended to confine citizen participation in governance to the casting of the vote.
The change in India’s stand globally signals potential openness to consultative policy-making. Since ‘multi-stakeholder’ governance is an ambiguous term , the government’s approach to domestic communication policy may be a good indicator of its intentions for the Internet. In this context, it is worth taking a close look at how the net neutrality policy is being made. A clear effort has been made at consultation and responsiveness. It is a promising start and may be the beginning of consultative decision-making that gives citizens more avenues to discuss the best way for them to access information.
Before publishing the net neutrality report this month, the Department of Telecommunications conducted a series of consultations. Although these consultations were closed and only for invited parties, the committee reached out to a wide range of experts and stakeholders. Reading the report makes it apparent that many perspectives were invited and incorporated but that we need to work towards documenting public input better. It is necessary to find a way to reflect different concerns within a post-consultation report.
Consultative governance of Internet policy will mean significant changes both in the process followed and in our deep-seated attitudes towards governance. If the government has to develop the uncomfortable habit of being more immediately responsive and accountable for decisions, we the stakeholders also need to take responsibility for our own communication policy.
For consultations to work, we will need to provide well-researched inputs and a continued willingness to engage and see other points of view, which is a habit that will also take time to develop.
The net neutrality consultation was a promising debut in which the government took the time to listen and respond, and a range of citizens made the effort to contribute and engage.
This is not the first time that India has flirted with the idea of multi-stakeholder governance. At the IGF 2012, the then Minister of Communications and Information Technology, Kapil Sibal, spoke of the India’s support for the multi stakeholder model. Following this, the government set up an advisory group for the India Internet Governance forum, and frequently invites inputs including in the net neutrality consultation.
Governments and other stakeholders of the world disagree about what ‘multi-stakeholder’ governance means. This governance model has its roots in the phrase ‘enhanced co-operation’, a compromise text inserted in the Tunis Agenda after prolonged negotiation. The meaning of this term, and the role played by NGOs in making decisions about the Internet remains elusive after years of international debate. The failure of the Working Group on Enhanced Co-operation set up to publish a report on what the model means illustrates the sensitive international politics within which the issue is submerged. An actual shift in India’s position may change the balance of the politics and would be worth watching out for.
India’s willingness and efforts to support a consultative model globally is likely to depend on its experience with such a model locally. The net neutrality consultations and leveraging of the multi-stakeholder advisory group are, therefore, tangible domestic experiments.
Multi-stakeholder models can vary in form and can exclude key stakeholders. For example, the Cyber Regulatory Advisory Committee consists of governmental and industry representatives with just one member from the technical community. Its characterisation as ‘multi-stakeholder’ has value since the government has the option of nominating others to the committee. But until the actual composition is more representative of different viewpoints, it will remain an industry-government committee. Similarly, the government’s cyber-security initiatives have tended to be industry-government conversations. This is troubling since all these initiatives ought to include people who work to embed human rights within these systems.
The recent net neutrality consultations are a step in the right direction. The department’s decision to call for public comment and response to the report is commendable, especially since the department is under no legal obligation to do this. If India is serious about consultative decision-making, it will be worthwhile to build the more ad hoc processes followed for the net neutrality report into a constantly-improving system. The TRAI has experience with inputs from public consultations, and we have a lot to learn from other democracies that do this on a regular basis.
India’s fears about multi-stakeholder governance have always had their roots in its concerns about decision-making being dominated by corporations, especially U.S.-based corporations. This is why our government has consistently supported the traditional Westphalian governance model based on reasoning that a multilateral conversation between governments is likely to be more equitable than one in which international companies that are larger than most countries can dominate. It is good to see that the Indian government is interrogating this standpoint. This is in keeping with this government’s overhaul of systems to modern decision-making and accountability systems. India will still need to work out details and build on existing efforts like the net neutrality consultation and the multi stakeholder advisory group. We will need to carefully craft our policies to ensure that the process goes beyond giving industry a voice, and encourages independent inputs that effectively safeguard citizens’ rights.