India and Internet Governance: The Challenge of Multistakeholderism

The recent signing of the US-India Cyber framework capped off a landmark year in India’s digital diplomacy. In addition to bilateral agreements, India played an important role in negotiations at international fora like the Ten Year Review of the World Summit on Information Society (WSIS+10 Review) and the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). India’s increasing interest in internet governance suggests that it is a priority area for the government. However, as our report on multistakeholderism suggests, there is a need for a domestic multistakeholder setup that supports India’s international engagements on internet governance.

The global internet governance regime has for long been the site of a contentious debate between multilateral and multistakeholder forms of governance. In their simplest form, multilateralism privileges the role of governments while the multistakeholderism accords an equal role to all stakeholders in the governance of the internet. In the last year, India has reiterated its support for the multistakeholder model of governance at ICANN, the WSIS+10 Review and the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). As a key swing state in these debates, India’s position has been instrumental in moving the debate in favour of multistakeholderism.

Across fora, multistakeholderism is emerging as the de facto model of governance. However, our report has found that there has been limited participation from Indian stakeholders at three internet governance institutions over the last 5 years. To have greater impact at these institutions, there needs to be greater engagement of Indian stakeholders from across stakeholder groups. This is only possible if there is a domestic multistakeholder environment that encourages greater participation of Indian stakeholders while also serving as a discursive space for policy discussions. The India Internet Governance Forum, conceived in 2013 is a multistakeholder body that was supposed to fill this gap. Three years on, it is yet to take shape and it is unclear as to why this is the case.

Multistakeholderism and India

There is some debate on the meaning of multistakeholderism, as the various internet governance institutions follow different models of multistakeholder governance. From ICANN, which is now administered by a ‘global multistakeholder community’, to a largely multilateral process like the WSIS, the divide between multistakeholderism and multilateralism is best described as a spectrum. At the heart of the multilateralism versus multistakeholderism debate is the role played by governments in the global governance of the internet.

In line with its policy in other issue areas, India had for long supported multilateralism in internet governance as well. However, at the IGF in Baku in 2012, the then Minister for Communication and Information Technology, Mr. Kapil Sibal came out in favour of multistakeholderism. Ever since, India’s external stance has warmed towards multistakeholderism. The critical juncture, as many observers note came at the ICANN52 meeting in Buenos Aires last year when Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister for Communications and Information Technology declared India’s unequivocal support for multistakeholderism.

Almost all respondents interviewed for our report believed that there is a need for consistent engagement with domestic stakeholders that could translate into greater Indian engagement on global internet governance. In the absence of strong interest from the private sector, they also believed that the government had a central role to play in creating such a domestic multistakeholder environment. This would also be in line with many countries around the world which have set up domestic and regional IGFs. Such initiatives help create a space for domestic conversations on internet related issues in a multistakeholder setting that could better inform policy making. In the last few months, countries in the neighbourhood like Pakistan and Bangladesh have announced domestic initiatives similar to the IGF. However, as the experience of the IIGF suggests, this may be a non-starter in India.

India Internet Governance Forum

Following the establishment of the IGF in 2006, many national and regional IGFs have been established around the world. Domestic IGFs have served as discursive spaces which feed into international policy making bodies. These initiatives have also contributed to knowledge dissemination and help increasing the interest of stakeholders in internet governance.

The US-India Cyber Framework, the IANA Transition and the upcoming ICANN57 meeting in Hyderabad have generated a lot of buzz around internet governance in India. ICANN57 in particular offers an opportunity to restart the conversation around domestic multistakeholder engagement and possibly the IIGF. It remains to be seen if this will be a temporary spike in interest or if it can be sustained in the coming months to create a tangible framework for domestic stakeholder engagement.

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