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Combating Unilateralism in Internet Governance

India’s proposal for a UN Committee for Internet-related policies is a move towards multilateralism in Internet governance.

Lately, there has been a great deal of discussion on the need for governments to play a role in Internet governance issues, in the wake of regressive laws such as the PROTECT IP Act, which has been recently proposed in the US. It is in this context that the Indian government has proposed the establishment of a United Nations Committee for Internet-Related Policies (UNCIRP).

The Indian delegation proclaimed the need to “strengthen the Internet as a vehicle for openness, democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, diversity, inclusiveness, creativity, free and unhindered access to information and knowledge, global connectivity, innovation and socio-economic growth”, and pushed for a participatory approach to internet governance with the help of UNCIRP. The body would, inter alia frame international policies concerning the Internet, co-ordinate and oversee the functioning of bodies that negotiate, operate and implement international treaties and resolve disputes, with a focus on developing countries.

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The proposal states that UNCIRP will consist of representatives from fifty states that are “chosen/elected” to ensure equitable geographic representation. While it is premature to make an observation on the process selection process, the ambiguity at present is a worrying. The proposal also discusses the creation of four ‘Advisory Groups’ – one each for civil society, the business sector, inter-governmental and international organisations, and one for the technical and academic community. Although this appears to incorporate the philosophy of multistakeholderism, there is more than meets the eye in such a set up. Comparing it with International Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which performs a number of Internet-related tasks that were previously vested with the United States government, it appears that the proposed Advisory Groups will be mere recommending bodies, effectively diluting the views of the other interest groups besides the government.

The bigger question is whether UNCIRP itself will have any substantial powers or if it will function as a recommendatory body. The proposal indicates that it will report to the General Assembly and provide its recommendations and proposals on Internet policies on an annual basis. In light of this, the establishment of UNCIRP would appear rather meaningless, especially since there already exist bodies committed to the formulation of Internet policy. However, the full impact of a body like UNCIRP cannot be evaluated without knowing the exact nature of its functioning, which will be decided after an eighteen-month deliberation process.

What is clear however is that the proposal is a reactionary measure to the increasing attempts by certain governments to regulate and control the Internet. The most recent examples that come to mind are Egypt, whose government cut-off Internet access to its citizens in the blink of an eye, and more generally the government in China, which has implemented the Great Firewall. More worrying is the fact that the US government appears to be dictating Internet-related policy unilaterally. In fact, the Indian delegation at the  U made a reference to the fact that UNCIRP was specifically intended to counter the negative impact of unilateral policy formulation. There are already examples of this such as the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, spearheaded by the US government, which would have had significant implications on intellectual property rights enforcement internationally.

More recently, this has emerged in the form of proposed legislation such as the Stop Online Piracy Act, which empowers the US government to seize the domains of websites that violate U.S. law, even if they comply with the laws of the country they operate in. Such developments are disconcerting since the US government has on several occasions employed a regressive approach towards Internet governance and policy. So perhaps it is time for other governments to get involved after all.

(Image courtesy Ritwick Roy for myLaw.net)

This was originally published on myLaw.net

About Amlan Mohanty

Amlan is a lawyer based in India. He engages in research, writing, speaking and teaching at the intersection of technology, law and policy.