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Giving Civil Society a Voice in Internet Governance

Published:  May 31, 2012
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The Pirate Bay, Dailymotion, Vimeo and Pastebin are some of the websites blocked in many countries.

India may be the world’s most populous democracy, but its online territory is rapidly becoming less democratic. Last week, for example, a Madras High Court ordered Internet service providers to block a number of websites. While courts in other countries, including the Netherlands and the UK, have ordered file sharing website The Pirate Bay to be blocked, India’s growing restricted list goes much further, including video sharing websites Vimeo and Dailymotion as well as the website Pastebin, which is used to share links, stories or code.

Last week’s court order was an example of how a law increasing intermediary liability, such as those that make websites legally responsible for third-party content, can restrict Internet freedom. Last April, the Indian government passed the Information Technologies (Intermediaries guidelines) Rules 2011, which, among other things, made websites responsible for all user-generated content that could be considered harmful, harassing, blasphemous, defamatory, or libelous. In testing how web companies interpret the law, the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore found that “intermediaries to err on the side of caution and over-comply” with the legislation, resulting in chilling effect on freedom of expression. But opposition to the law has been increasing, particularly as civil society groups get more involved. Earlier this month, Aseem Trivedi and Alok Dixit from Save Your Voice,a campaign against web censorship in India, began a hunger strike in protest of the government agenda. Rising opposition has pushed Indian IT Minister Kapil Sibal to promise to review the new rules.

Yet India is not alone in imposing restrictions on Internet use and content. China, Russia and Uzbekistan, among other countries, are also actively restricting their citizens’ freedom of expression online. China has long served as an example of how to control content, with net freedom advocates referring to the Chinese censorship machinery as the “Great Firewall of China.” In Uzbekistan, access to the government-run social networking site Muloqot.uz requires a valid mobile phone number which is linked to a user’s passport number, ensuring that users are easy to trace.

While Indian courts are attempting to control content domestically, a simultaneous effort from India’s national government is focused on increasing governmental control of the global Internet. Last October, India submitted a proposal to the United Nations for the creation of a UN Committee for Internet-related policies (CIRP). CIRP would be a government-only body tasked with overseeing Internet governance and standards setting.  

This would alter the current landscape of international Internet governance, which is a multi-stakeholder process including civil society as well as government actors. The US-based public policy organization Center for Democracy and Technology describes the current model as "bottom-up, decentralized, consensus-driven approach in which governments, industry, engineers, and civil society" contribute to policy outcomes. The distribution of Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and top level domains, for example, is managed by Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a non-profit organization. Organizations like Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium work together with engineers to develop standards.  

A Global Trend

India is not alone in its attempts to reshape the international Internet governance landscape. Last September, China, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan submitted a proposal for an “International Code of Conduct for Information Security” to the UN General Assembly to codify international norms of Internet regulation.

The proposed shifts toward more central control in international Internet governance models would be a dramatic departure and would mean that governments, rather than engineers or civil society, set standards and policies. The debate has been heating up in anticipation of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s first World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT12) in Dubai. Gary Fowlie, Head of the ITU Liaison Office to the United Nations, noted at a recent event that WCIT12 will be an opportunity for the ITU to revise its mandate to include Internet governance. Analysts fear that this may provide an avenue for President Vladimir Putin and others to assume international governmental control over the Internet, locking out civil society actors.

The battle against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA) in the U.S. demonstrated not only the dangers of changing Internet standards to control information, but also why public input is so critical in these discussions. Massive public outcry against SOPA and PIPA forced lawmakers to reconsider to potential damage the legislation would cause. The reaction, both online and off, demonstrated the widespread desire of citizens to be involved in Internet policy-making. On January 18, 2012, 115,000 websites blacked out in protest and over 7 million people petitioned Congress to oppose the bills.

Nevertheless, the United States is also trying to export restrictive policies with efforts such as the Trans Pacific Partnership, a secretly-negotiated treaty that proposes to export strict copyright enforcement. The closed-door nature of the TPP negotiation process that has made it significantly more difficult for opponents to fight this effort than the publicly-debated SOPA and PIPA bills.

Unfortunately, the ITU’s Council Working Group, which is charged with setting the agenda for WCIT12, is accepting input from governments and members, but has excluded suggestions from civil society. Last week, over thirty civil society organizations, including the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, sent a letter to ITU Secretary-General Dr. Hamadoun Touré that asks for “full, equal, and meaningful participation of civil society stakeholders” in WCIT12. The organizations also requested that members be allowed to share WCIT documents. In an effort to make this information more accessible to the public, the Netizen Project's Tom Risen covered a congressional hearing on ITU Internet governance last week where panelists argued that expanding United Nations control over the Internet could damage economics and freedom worldwide.

Without transparency and civil society input in Internet governance discussions, the outcomes would be damaging to the global Internet. In a recent Op-Ed, Federal Communications Commissioner Robert McDowell criticized centralized approaches to Internet governance as “antithetical to the architecture of the Net, which is a global network of networks without borders.” Furthermore, without civil society input, citizens will not have a voice to impact the Internet we each use on a daily basis for our political, social, and economic well-being.


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