IT for Change continued to be on the forefront of shaping a progressive global discourse in the area of governance of the Internet. At the global level, our main focus remained as democratisation of global governance of the Internet through improving openness and participation of the under-represented sections of the society. At the same time, attempts at perpetuating global corporatist power in the name of (some very problematic versions of) 'multistakeholderism' were strongly resisted. At the national level, the Indian government began to exhibit a greater willingness to engage with civil society on Internet governance issues. Here too, strong attempts were made by industry groups to dominate these new participative processes through considerable co-optation of some civil society groups. These efforts were also effectively countered by us. Unfortunately, for a quite long time now, our Internet Governance work has received no funding at all. This is indicative of the larger political economy dynamics of this space, where issues of freedom of expression, no doubt important, procure funds rather easily in comparison to efforts at articulation of issues related to social and economic justice, which simply go abegging.
Governing the global Internet
“ IT for Change is at the forefront of internet governance issues. The increased interaction of developing country governments in this area can be associated to IT for Change's role in raising awareness and providing information to policy-makers to take action.”
The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) was unable to arrive at a conclusive agreement on the issue of democratisation of institutions of global governance of the Internet. As a result, it encapsulated this imperative in a relatively vague mandate citing the need for 'enhanced cooperation', leaving the task of appropriately fulfilling and operationalising this mandate to future UN processes. Over the last few years, IT for Change has been one of the foremost actors seeking urgent progress on this key imperative. In the earlier years, we played a prominent role in keeping the issue alive at the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) and other UN bodies. Over the reported period, we participated closely in some very significant efforts that bore fruit: The UN General Assembly requested the Chair of the UN Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) to hold a day-long open consultation on 'enhanced cooperation' (May 2012, Geneva) and, later, a CSTD Working Group on 'enhanced cooperation' was instituted (December 2012).
“Third World Network has been cooperating with IT for Change for several years, and their contribution to the democratisation of the global governance of the Internet is extremely valuable and of crucial importance. First, they are the only Southern-based group that vigilantly monitors the dynamics of the global governance debate and inter-governmental negotiations. Secondly, their approach of a structural analysis of the issue makes vital linkages to the development needs and diversity of knowledge systems of the South. TWN looks forward to closer collaboration with IT for Change.”
In the run up to the CSTD consultation, IT for Change organised a global civil society campaign that was co-sponsored by Third World Network (TWN), Malaysia, Focus on Global South, Thailand, Instituto NUPEF, Brazil, Other News, Italy and Knowledge Commons, India. This campaign sought urgent action towards democratising global governance of the Internet. A joint statement was issued that demanded that a UN Working Group be set up on the issue of 'enhanced cooperation' - an unfulfilled agenda from the WSIS-. The campaign was supported globally by more than 60 other organisations, and many more in an individual capacity. It was the first time that a global civil society network came together to take a clear and strong position on institutional aspects of global Internet governance, from what can be considered as largely a Southern perspective.
Ever since India made the demand for a new UN body on Internet Governance in October, 2011, there has been pressure on India to rescind its position. Media spaces were also used for this purpose, comparing India's stance to those of authoritarian countries without any reference to the manner in which few corporations and governments, mostly the US, currently rule the Internet, and are shaping it according to their geo-economic and geo-political advantage. To counter this misinformation campaign, we wrote an op-ed in the top India daily, 'The Hindu'. The op-ed titled 'India's proposal will help take the web out of U.S. Control' inter alia countered a report in the same paper the previous day that claimed that the Indian proposal would lead to government control of the Internet.
One of IT for Change's members was invited by the Chair of CSTD to be a part of the opening panel of the consultation on 'enhanced cooperation' that was held on May 18th, 2012. IT for Change highlighted the need to openly and thoroughly discuss the issue and implications of 'multistakeholderism' in global Internet governance, focusing on what roles different stakeholders should play in governance and policy making. The aforementioned joint civil society statement, was read out in this meeting on 'enhanced cooperation' by a 'representative of the TWN. This campaign also found positive mention in a joint press release issued by UN Special Rapporteur on Cultural Rights and UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression on the eve of the meeting.
On May 22nd, 2012, at the substantive session of CSTD, IT for Change was once again invited to speak at the opening panel preceding a discussion by member countries on 'enhanced cooperation'. Here, we presented some conceptual clarifications and proposed some practical steps to move forward on the vexed issue of 'enhanced cooperation'. We especially recommended separating the consideration of issues of oversight over technical and logical infrastructure of the Internet, from that of the required mechanism to deal with other larger socio-political public policy issues related to the Internet.
IT for Change at UN Internet Governance Forum
“ IT for Change is a beacon in the Global South, a commanding and reliable light, a leader in civil society for democratic change. In the Internet Governance space, where I particularly appreciate the contributions, their voice articulates unmistakably for developing societies and also leads the way for all, toward a truly democratic global regime.”
IT for Change has been a regular participant in the annual IGF meetings. We attended the latest Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, from 6th to 9th November, 2012 and its connected pre-events from 3rd to 5th of November.
IT for Change is a founding member of the new BestBits civil society group which met for the first time on 4th of November in Baku. IT for Change was a cosponsor of this event. The meeting discussed important global Internet Governance events, especially the then forthcoming World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT). It also issued a pre-WCIT statement that raised the issue of multistakeholder participation in the WCIT and also some substantive issues. IT for Change was closely involved in developing this joint civil society statement, especially to bring economic and social justice issues like universal access and 'net neutrality' into the statement.
One of IT for Change's members was invited to speak at an IGF pre-event on 'Enhanced Cooperation in Internet Governance: From Deadlock to Dialogue' on November 5th, where the many inconsistencies in the stand of developed countries on this issue were highlighted. Also some practical ways to move forward - including the formation of a CSTD Working Group on 'enhanced cooperation' - were suggested.
IT for Change also helped co- organise a workshop on 'National IG Mechanism – Looking at Some key Design Issues' with speakers from many countries, like Brazil, Canada and New Zealand, who are involved with national Internet Governance mechanisms. The effort here was to look at possible models that can be adopted in countries where such mechanisms, especially those involving multistakeholder participation, are under-developed.
We were a part of the panel in the workshop 'Quo Vadis IGF – or Evolution of IGF' that looked at various suggestions for IGF improvements, especially the recommendations of the CSTD Working Group on IGF Improvements. We also made numerous interventions in the main sessions. We were even more actively involved in many side meetings and network activities at the IGF – both with civil society and governmental actors.
IT for Change and ITU's World Conference
One of the major global Internet governance events this year was the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) WCIT. The regulatory structure governing the global communication infrastructure was to be re-negotiated at this conference. The main issue was whether the new regulatory framework should stick to dealing with traditional telephony alone or whether it should include the Internet as well. The case for keeping the Internet out, championed by the US government and companies like Google, had its legitimate features while it also represented strong vested interests.
It is certainly important to resist any movement towards any kind of international 'content' regulation system. At the same time, it is equally necessary to develop regulatory frameworks or principles for some infrastructural elements of the Internet, in terms of universal service, interoperability, 'net neutrality' etc. However, this would have impacted the overwhelming US dominance on the Internet. The extent to which Google emerged as a major political actor during the WCIT drew widespread criticism, as it also gives us a premonition of the huge political role that mega Internet companies are likely to play in the future. Unfortunately, most civil society groups took a simplistic pro-US view, which was completely against regulation of the global communication realm. IT for Change wrote an op-ed in 'The Hindu' daily, titled 'Hyping One Threat to Hide Another', which highlighted how the threat of content related controls by governments was being tactically sensationalised to conceal US' designs to maintain and enhance its hegemony over the global Internet.
IT for Change was one of very few organisations world over that took a balanced view of this important global meeting/ We also took part in national level discussions preceding the conference, aiming at informing and influencing national civil society view. We participated in the ministerial consultations on the subject, articulating the view that regulation of some layers of the Internet was important for developing countries, and that the issue of 'Internet regulation' should not be treated as a take-all or leave-all issue. At the end of the conference, when the pro US lobby staged a walk out in opposition of the the final treaty document coming out of WCIT, IT for Change summed up the results of the conference in another op-ed, 'A False Consensus is Broken'.
ICANN's controversial domain name policy
Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is a US based non-profit that manages the logical and naming infrastructure of the Internet. It allocates top level domain names like .com and .org. While its work may appear relatively insignificant, it has become the symbol both of US' unilateral control of some key central elements of the global Internet, and of a new kind of global governance model touted as 'multistakeholderism', but which in actuality is dominated by the big businesses. Partially by relying on a basic anarchist ideology common among tech-enthusiasts – see for instance, The Californian Ideology - and partially by utilising enormous funds obtained from domain name fees collection, ICANN has managed to assemble what it refers to as the 'ICANN community'. This 'community' is more often preoccupied with zealously guarding the ICANN model' of governance rather than promoting global public interest.
The controversy surrounding the latest generic top level domains (gtlds) proposed by ICANN is exemplary of exactly this. The ICANN came out with a policy whereby it would allow companies to take up generic words like book, school, kids, beauty, etc as personal digital property, owning exclusive rights to domain names consisting of these generic words. This issue came to be called as one of 'closed generics'. No other entity would be able to register sub domains under these new proposed top level domains. For instance, only Amazon will be able to register sub-domains under '.book' i.e. one cannot write a book and register 'mybook' under .book; this would only be possible for Amazon products. What is noteworthy is that the ICANN's draft policy went through several rounds of comments and consultations within the 'ICANN community', which includes a large number of civil society actors, but faced little opposition. In fact most civil society actors supported the 'closed generics' policy, offering as a justification the need to encourage new and different business models.
IT for Change, once again, was perhaps the only civil society organisation in the global civil society space protesting against such privatisation of generic words. Towards this end, we authored another op-ed in 'The Hindu' titled 'Beauty lies in the domain of the highest bidder', building on the case of the possible allocation of .beauty as a closed generic domain name to L'Oreal. This op-ed received a very strong positive response. The following day, 'The Hindu' expressed its own opposition to the new policy through an editorial - No ICANN.
Fortunately, many governments have now opposed the 'closed generics' policy through the Governmental Advisory Committee to the ICANN, and this may stall its implementation. We have been in close contact with the Indian government and some others on this issue.
Internet Governance and India
It was in the backdrop of India taking a firm stand on the need for new institutional developments in the area of global governance that some industry lobby groups became extremely active towards influencing India's foreign policy in this area. Such relatively direct industry efforts at influencing a country's foreign policy are rare, more so when the involved companies are largely foreign-owned. The fact that these efforts were carried out so openly receiving little or no flak from the involved civil society, many of whom even became active partners with these companies, tells an unfortunate story. Such a partnership resulted in rigorous efforts to start an industry led India Internet Governance Forum (IGF). IT for Change resisted this move, and propositioned that India IGF has to be a neutral public funded body for it to be an effective means to improve democratic participation. It seems that in the face of opposition from some quarters, the Indian government forbid the concerned industry groups from using the name of 'India IGF'. Consequently, the proposed event assumed the name 'India Internet Governance Conference'. IT for Change had agreed to associate with the event as long as the name IGF was not used. Thus, we not only participated in the event, but were also part of the main panel on 'Multistakeholderism in Internet Governance'. We asked for consistency between the nature of multistakeholder models that global business and civil society demand from UN systems and developing countries on the one hand, and what models get accepted at plurilateral bodies of rich countries like the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on the other. IT for Change, also organised a session on 'net neutrality' at the conference. We proposed that the time has come for the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to take a more active role in ensuring 'net neutrality' which is being violated, especially in the case of Internet on mobiles. We requested for TRAI to begin a public consultation on this subject.
Meanwhile, we persisted with advocacy for a publicly-funded India IGF with a neutral secretariat and clear rules for its operation, to enable openness, transparency and greater participation of those who are most excluded from policy processes. Such a forum should not simply result in legitimising corporate lobbying through new, more powerful, means. The previously mentioned problematic industry-led process even whilst making headway towards another event in 2013, has maintained a high degree of ambivalence with regards to whether it considers itself as the India IGF entity or not. Meanwhile, it appears that the Indian government may be taking necessary steps towards setting up a publicly-funded India IGF with a relatively neutral secretariat. If this is indeed so, it will be a major advocacy gain for IT for Change. We would have participated in blocking what could have been a very dangerous precedent for Indian democracy whereby an industry-run space gets designated as 'the' official participative forum for policy development. At the same time, in contributing towards laying the foundations of a publicly-funded India IGF, we may have helped the process of institutionalising a new kind of democratic participation realm, which could turn out to be a unique democratic experiment.
As for national level issues, apart from the mentioned workshop on 'net neutrality', IT for Change took part in stakeholder consultations on “Legitimate Restrictions on Freedom of Online Speech: Creating Balanced Approach: From Deadlock to Dialogue” Held by Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) on 4th of September, 2012. We also submitted written comments on how this issue should be dealt with at a practical level, especially in view of some very problematic applications on the ground of IT Act and IT Rules in India. All written comments were compiled by the organisers and passed on to the ministry.
Snowden happened only recently, yet deserves mention in this annual report as this has considerably changed the global Internet governance scene! The Internet lost its innocence long ago, however it has become common knowledge only now (post-Snowden). An increasingly widespread perception that the Internet and Internet Governance are increasingly becoming important determinants of how our social systems are changing, in almost all areas, is resulting in a much greater interest in global governance of the Internet. We hope to network better with key civil society actors globally, and set up a new network with the express goal of promoting social justice worldwide. We will also increase our national level footprint, reaching out to more civil society actors, and those involved with promoting domestic industry. Efforts at developing a national level constituency that addresses wider social, economic, political and cultural issues pertaining to Internet governance, will be undertaken. Similar work will be pursued at the global level as well. Finally, we also intend on bringing out a bi-weekly newsletter capturing major Internet governance related events, and presenting important articles , papers etc.