Thursday, June 27, 2013

Democracy on the Net?

Hardeep S. Puri, India's former Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, has an interesting essay in the Indian Express today on the need to democratize the internet.  He argues that the "US is clearly determined to continue its relentless pursuit of the current model of global internet governance, for preserving its economic and strategic interests. It is unlikely that there will be any change in its policy even after the Snowden disclosures."  

Much of the backbone of the current global internet system is based in the US and this does give the US some control, though many other states have shown that they have the ability to tightly monitor and control the net within their own territories.  Even India has shown, on occasion, that it can control internet majors.  But Puri's argument is about giving all states some control over the governance of the Net.  He writes:
"We need a dedicated group of people — within the establishment, industry, technical and scientific community, academia, civil society and media — who can reflect upon and define India's long-term interests in advancing the cause of democratising global internet governance and free ourselves from the current model where the space for discussion is arrogated by apologists for the current model of unilateral control.
The UN has launched a process for observing the 10th anniversary of WSIS in 2015. This provides an opportunity for India to work with other leading democratic countries like Brazil and South Africa within the IBSA platform and with other like-minded countries in the UN for democratising global internet governance to make it truly "multilateral, transparent and democratic", as envisioned in the Tunis Agenda."
The problem with this is not sentiment about democratizing the Net, but the lack of realism about how international politics works.  India has for long championed such efforts at democratizing global governance: remember the New International Economic Order (NIEO) or the New International Information Order (NIIO)?  There is little to show for such efforts because global politics are determined by power, not by justice or democracy.  Indian foreign policy mandarins only occasionally recognize this, and they mostly do not even understand the contradictions here.  For example, India has been campaigning assiduously for a permanent seat in UN Security Council.  (Indeed, Puri --who was then PR at the UN -- was quoted by Headlines Today (part of the India Today news group) in 2011 as saying that he expected India to be a Permanent Member of the UNSC by December 2012, latest.  Obviously, a Realist he's not).  The only basis for Indian claim is that it is a rising great power and that the UNSC should recognize the changed realities from when the UNSC was formed in 1945.  No talk about democratizing global governance here!  The point is that the US controls the internet because it is the prevailing global power.  May be someday this will change, and then so will control over the internet.  Until then, no amount of money-wasting UN conferencing will change who controls the internet.  Unfortunately, Indian foreign policy-makers continue to believe that they can talk their way to getting what they want.  Krishna Menon, after all, still holds the record for the longest speech ever at the UN (not that that worked either!).

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