In this blog post, Abhishek Tripathi, a NUJS graduate and an ex-AMSS Advocate describes the need for the regulation of the Internet and the impact of Internet Governance.
The 57th Meeting of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Hyderabad is significant for India. It conveys our stand for a multi-stakeholder approach to the global internet governance. It also puts the spotlight on the need to have state protection of critically important facets, such as national security.
Internet is the backbone of ambitious government schemes and citizen outreach in India today. The National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) aims to provide high speed broadband internet to India’s villages. Digital India, e-governance and other information and communication technology enabled platforms imply the significance of accessible internet in our democracy as well as the importance of access to internet governance architecture for India.
Two important components of internet governance emerge from the foregoing discussion. One is, at a macro-level, concerning internet as a whole. The second is at a micro-level, concerning the way internet impacts an individual nation and society. The former will work best when multiple stake-holders, including governments, private parties, and research and education institutions engage freely. The latter level calls for some introspection. The question to ask is whether regulating the internet in India in some way is necessary? Let us explore this tantalizing proposition.
In 2014, the Global Commission on Internet Governance was established to champion the cause of freedom of expression and free flow of ideas and thoughts over the internet. It has been working towards internet governance based on a multi-stakeholder model that does not harp only the hard law and regulatory enforcements. But is rather a non-hierarchical set up that encourages voluntary compliance with codes of conduct, industry best practices and technical criteria. Somewhere, the idea also resonates with the theme of net neutrality, first discussed by Professor Tim Wu, of the Columbia University, School of Law. In simplistic terms, net neutrality means that there should be no discrimination towards information flowing on the internet.
In 2014, the World Summit on the Internet Society Plus 10 was held in Sharm-al-Sheikh, Egypt with an aim to discuss the road beyond 2015, concerning internet governance globally. Internationally, there has been a consistent movement towards a deeper engagement with the issue of regulating internet, and an acceptable model of internet governance. Social media, e-commerce, increased access to the internet and increasing foray of technology into everyday life are primary factors that have necessitated a coherent vision for the internet.
But, alongside the positives, internet has also seen the rise of hitherto unthought-of of challenges. Cybercrime has been on top of the minds of most governments; more-so, as it is being increasingly deployed by some nations as part of their expanding contours of defense strategy.
The threat of religious fanatics fanning propaganda using the internet is real, and ever growing. The role that some popular websites play in expanding the ideological reach of international terrorist groups is well documented. It is not lost on anyone that internet also poses a threat to our social fabric and internal security. Communal and anti-secular views can be easily fanned using the internet. It is relevant to note that proactive government policy has ensured a steadily rising telecommunication and internet penetration. Bridging the cost divide by cell phone manufacturers implies that today, the internet reaches out to many sections of the population who may be vulnerable and gullible targets. Hence, the danger of a misrepresented propaganda leading to communal riots is indeed tangible.
The recent narrative on online information and the internet have recreated the theme of George Orwell’s disturbing, yet celebrated novel, ‘1984’, on a real scale and across geographies. Be it powerful nations ‘snooping’ on strategic information or governments imposing harsh content restrictions, the mind of the unsuspecting citizen is filled with the fear that “Big Brother is watching you”! In the case of Shreya Singhal vs Union of India the Supreme Court has, inter-alia, struck down the provisions of section 66A, Information Technology Act, 2000. The reason being that this law was worded vaguely, resulting in arbitrary execution in many instances. By implication, this means regulation per-se, is not a taboo. It has to be reasonable and in compliance with the constitutional ethos and expectations of India.
Democracy means a country that is fair to all, and to ensure this, it could come down with a heavy hand on sections that incite enmity and hatred on others. If held otherwise, how would democracy be any different from anarchy? Judged from this perspective, some form of regulation may be necessary, and to a degree justified. The constitutional touchstone of ‘reasonable restrictions’ under Article 19 must also imply that should the government create a reasonable and fair means of regulating content, such a means would be justifiable.
Equipping the police and security forces appropriately is important. The scope of discretion of executing agencies has to be well defined for it to be well implemented. At every level, there must be stricter scrutiny, and an in-built mechanism to ensure transparency and accountability. At the same time, instances such as propaganda, fanning communal hatred, cyber crime and cyber terrorism must be dealt with an iron fist. Internet governance must ensure India has a say in the way the internet operates globally, to ensure that our national priorities are not compromised. It should also be a means to manage the consequences of internet usage on the psyche of India’s society.
 Abhishek Tripathy graduated in law from the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata. His interests lie in the interface of law, policy and governance. Views expressed are entirely personal.