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BRICS and Internet Governance: India’s Chance to Lead the Way

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The last quarter of 2015 alone witnessed three key events that displayed the diversity of views on internet governance. Namely, the 10th Internet Governance Forum (IGF), the United Nations WSIS+10 High Level Meeting, and the 2nd World Internet Conference (WIC) in Wuzhen, China. Each of these events captured various models of internet governance both as part of their discussions and in their format as well.  In this post I highlight some of these rifts in the internet governance space and suggest that 2016 BRICS Summit, might be a great venue to build bridges for better dialogue. India is set to chair the BRICS Summit from February 2016 and has an opportunity to lead the way.

The number of venues where internet governance discussions take place continues to grow. This is not surprising considering that internet governance is a very broad term and has a wide ambit that is rather pervasive. It is indeed a reflection of diverse perceptions and priorities that countries and stakeholders have with regard to internet governance. Having multiple fora for discussing these issues is not a bad necessarily a bad thing. In addition to providing more alternatives I believe it accommodates diverse perspectives and provides avenues for greater representation.

Interaction between these fora produces interesting results. For example, the 10th IGF also facilitated a round of consultations on the WSIS+10 Review, and the inputs received was transmitted to the negotiations before the High Level Meeting. This synergy is natural because the IGF was essentially born out the second phase WSIS process in 2005, and the consultations for the WSIS+10 Review also followed a multistakeholder model. An example showcasing the opposite of such synergy can be found in furore surrounding the interactions at the 2nd WIC. Fadi Chehade, CEO of ICANN at the 2nd WIC caused quite a stir with his statements, and decision to join and co-chair the High-Level Advisory Committee. I will not be analysing the merits and demerits of such decision, or commenting on the larger Chinese strategy at play. I would  like to highlight the reason for such friction is simply because of the existence of multiple models of governance.

The various models of governance are a result of the divergent views of internet governance. The Tunis Agenda is a great example that was a result of a compromise between the multistakeholder and multilateral elements. Ten years later the negotiations of WSIS+10 Outcome document revived the same debate. Eventually the outcome document was arrived at by including both ‘multistakeholder’ and ‘multilateral’ in its text. Kleinwächter takes a ‘layered approach’ in analysing this debate, and shows how each event is an example of a different model of governance. The IGF is a multistakeholder conference, while the WSIS+10 was multilateral and the 2nd WIC was unilateral event under Chinese leadership. It is evident that in reality no model exists in isolation, and cannot afford to do so due to the complexity and scale of the internet ecosystem. However, competing notions of fundamental concepts prevent multiple models from co-existing without friction. Concepts of sovereignty and jurisdiction when applied to the internet and cyberspace have widely differing interpretations. Even multistakeholderism is interpreted and operationalised differently in various institutions and processes.

The concept of ‘sovereignty’ can be taken as an example. At the 2nd World Internet Conference, the Chinese President Xi Jinping reiterated the application of sovereignty to online spaces. On an internet governance spectrum, President Xi Jinping’s iteration of ‘cyber-sovereignty’ would be on one end while John Perry Barlow’s famous Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from 20 years ago would be on the other end. Barlow’s version of cyberspace is long gone, and sovereignty on the internet has many manifestations such as ‘data sovereignty’ that has gained importance in the Post-Snowden Era. The evolving uses of the internet only adds to the complexity created by these competing notions of sovereignty and its application to the online spaces resulting in differing interpretations of ‘cyber-sovereignty’.

In this context, I believe building a ‘BRICS Bridge for Dialogue’ would be helpful. BRICS might seem like the least favourable place to discuss internet governance given there are divergent views within the coalition itself. Russia and China support greater weightage to multilateral methods. While India, Brazil and South Africa (IBSA) can be considered supporters of multistakeholder models although they had earlier in 2011 supported a UN led Committee for Internet Related Policy (CIRP) which was predominantly a multilateral model. India’s position on multistakeholderism is evidenced not only in the statement of the Information and Communications Minister at ICANN 53 but also in the recently concluded WSIS+10 negotiations as well.

BRICS has already put in place working groups such as the Working Group on ICT Cooperation, and the BRICS Working Group on Security in the Use of ICTs. The Ufa Declaration pledges support for greater cooperation in these areas and places heavy reliance on the UN and multilateral mechanisms. However it also acknowledges the ideas of “equal footing” and “the need to involve relevant stakeholders in their respective roles and responsibilities”. This intra-BRICS cooperation provides a foundation of shared values to build a stronger dialogue on internet governance issues. Given the divergence of views on internet governance models among the BRICS countries, it is not easy to develop a crystallised BRICS position. However, initiating the dialogue among a smaller group countries with common interests can probably yield better results than stand-offs between hard-line positions on other international fora. India will be hosting the BRICS Summit in 2016, and will be Chair for a period of 11 months starting in February 2016. India has the opportunity to initiate and steer this dialogue that has significant strategic benefits not just for the BRICS countries but can contribute to the development of global internet governance regimes. 

Original author: gangeshvarma


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