These days, it is well-accepted everywhere that the availability of digital infrastructure is a paramount necessity for the progress of most members of society. In fact, we are literally overwhelmed by frantic efforts at digitalisation by various actors, both governmental and non-governmental. Every aspect of modern living – be it personal or work productivity, healthcare, entertainment or transportation, etc, is being permeated by digitalisation coupled with net connectivity. However, many are still a little apprehensive or hesitant with digitalisation due to legacy fears regarding privacy, cybersecurity, and personal safety. Therefore, the adoption and usage of digital infrastructure will entail the availability of a strong and sustainable internet governance framework. As can be appreciated, while the internet has been a very powerful engine for development in the last several decades, it is also, like most scientific inventions, a double-edged tool that can be used for mankind’s benefit or harm, to counter the latter aspect, once again the focus would have to be on an appropriate and robust internet governance system.
The multistakeholder group – IIGF, – India Internet Governance Forum, was established in 2021 to help drive internet governance activities in a dedicated manner. Despite a somewhat delayed start, India is marching ahead quite purposefully in this field and is catching up smartly with other leading nations of the world. In fact, having a large and rising net user-based of over 800 million connections, India has a big responsibility to play its role adequately in the global arena of internet governance. To discharge this important responsibility, it needs to have wide-ranging discussions/workshops with the community of multiple stakeholders on a large range of subjects which inter alia, should include accessibility, cyber trust, and resilience, comprehensive inclusivity, technology adoption, awareness and education, etc. In the government- led multistakeholder IIGF International Conference to be held from 9- 11 December, 2022 it is important that these subjects and more are discussed in depth and suitable recommendations made.
It must also be noted that various news, articles, and concerns of academia and civil society are being raised regarding the targeted control of the internet by some nations who have already started pushing for increased governmental control over internet in the name of cyber sovereignty. After the pandemic, there has been renewed push of top-down management control of internet that needs to be seen in the light of new geopolitical equations and technological control by a few nations. Division is happening at the global level as some nations are on the other side which are in favour of the continuation of existing system of collaborative efforts through continuance of existing norms and institutions.
In the recent past, Indian government had to ban at-least 50 over-the-top (OTT) applications including some popular-among-youth apps, for lack of transparency and possible impact on the sovereignty of the nation. Further, over the years, there are rising concerns of civil society that some users, user groups, and organisations are trying to use the internet in an unacceptable way for scoring over competition unfairly in the market.
India has firmly declared its policy commitment of having multilateral stakeholder approach in the matter of internet governance, but, as of now, like other nations, India too has been engaging/participating in several global meetings like Internet Governance Forum (IGF), Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC) etc. by and large through its government machinery. A ‘Centre for Communication Governance’ report, Analysing Indian Engagement at Global Internet Governance Institutions 2011-2015 by Puneeth Nagaraj and Aarti Bhavana notes that the small number of civil society, academic and government representatives who have participated in global governance forums so far have shared concerns regarding accountability, legitimacy, diversity and capacity. In the matter of freedom of expression, website blocking, policy issues, encryption bill and the geospatial bill, and a multitude of other such issues, there is need to engage civil society and technical experts adequately.
Issues are also arising around privacy of data, its safety and security while some discussions are directed towards national sovereignty. Cyber security has also become buzz word and matter of concern. There is serious need for greater involvement of civil societies in the discussions on the issue of internet governance in India and also push for the same at international level for harmonious and smooth expansion of internet and its governance and create an acceptable system for internet governance at global level while safeguarding the interests of nations at individual level.
Another important factor underscoring the need for increased internet governance has been the exponential rise in use of internet of things (IoT). It has been entering in our daily life in the name of smart devices. Each device manufacturer has been using its own software and control mechanism and hence for different devices of different manufacturers there is requirement of separate OTT application. Thus, time may come when 10-15 apps shall be there in one’s phone for management of multiple devices at home for example one for refrigerator, one for washing machine, one for microware, one each for fans if the same belongs to different make, and one each for other devices. The time has come to start working on some standards so that different devices could be managed through a single application irrespective of the manufacturer.
Many are the challenges before nations including India for expeditiously putting in place a suitable framework amidst the various geopolitical equations and the continuously-evolving technological factors. However, it must be admitted that India also has several great factors propelling it namely the largest population base in the world of over 1.4 billion, extremely rich diversity, inherent aptitude for IT, software and broadband, and love for technology adoption. To cap it all, the nation is totally committed to the goal of being digital India.
The author is Hon. FIET (London) and President, Broadband India Forum. Research inputs by Dr Shiv Kumar Sharma of BIF. The views are personal.