from Net Politics and Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program

India’s Internet Diplomacy: Reading the Tea Leaves

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July 14, 2015

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Arun Mohan Sukumar is a lawyer, journalist, and former senior fellow at the Centre for Communication Governance at National Law University Delhi. You can follow him on Twitter @arunmsukumar.

The declaration inked by BRICS leaders last week in Ufa, Russia, as it relates to Internet governance, strikes a dissonant chord with India’s recent overture towards the multistakeholder approach. What explains India’s apparent back and forth? And is there a new opening for U.S.-India cooperation in cyberspace?

At the bloc’s annual summit, India signed on to a communiqué that highlighted the role of “national governments” and government-led institutions in articulating Internet policies. “It is necessary to ensure that the UN plays a facilitating role in setting up international public policies pertaining to the Internet,” the document read. The BRICS declaration is at odds, however, with the announcement made in June by India’s ICT Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad at the fifty-third conference of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Unveiling an “Indian vision for the Internet,” Mr. Prasad suggested at ICANN53 that “multistakeholderism is perhaps the only way to keep the system integrated, growing and expanding [...].”

The difficulty in reconciling both statements poses the question: was India’s endorsement of “multistakeholderism” a blip in the radar? In 2012, India’s then communications minister welcomed the multistakeholder approach to Internet governance, only to be contradicted later by New Delhi’s statements at the Net Mundial and 2014 ITU Plenipotentiary conferences. India’s Internet diplomacy during this time was characterised by a difference in views between its foreign and ICT ministries. Those differences no longer exist. What, then, explains India’s acquiescence to the Ufa declaration?

For India, the BRICS statement reflects the difficulties in adjusting to a new posture that is resisted by Russia and China. New Delhi sought to temper the language of the draft statement circulated by Russia ahead of the summit, and succeeded in removing references to a multilateral Internet governance ecosystem. The Ufa declaration finally settled on the least common denominator, invoking the Tunis Agenda’s words on the need to involve “relevant stakeholders in their respective roles.” On its own, New Delhi has been more forthcoming: at a UN consultation to review World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) outcomes—held a few days after the ICANN53 announcement—India chose to “renew and reaffirm its commitment to multistakeholder processes.” The fact that New Delhi dispatched a Joint Secretary (equivalent in rank to a US Assistant Secretary) from the foreign ministry to deliver the WSIS statement is significant, and highlights the attention India is giving to the issue.

The Indian government’s decision to endorse a multistakeholder approach signals its willingness to engage U.S.-centric rules and institutions in cyberspace. It is not born out of domestic compulsion. While consultative processes to frame Internet policies in India leave room for improvement, there is little appreciable demand for a multistakeholder model at home. India’s position, therefore, appears to be strategic, hinting that the United States could have a valuable partner at hand: a democracy that is willing to lend legitimacy to U.S. leadership in cyberspace, provided there is no capture or control of critical Internet infrastructure by businesses or governments.

The Buenos Aires announcement opens the door for India and the United States to begin constructive dialogue—especially at the Track 1.5 level—on cybersecurity, data protection and a mutually negotiated regime on intermediary liability. The Narendra Modi government is on strong footing at home, but its cyber politics will likely be influenced by developments abroad. Revelations of U.S. surveillance on foreign governments and political parties, and the final fate of the IANA transition will be crucial. Just as significant will be the extent to which multistakeholder processes accommodate emerging economies in the development of technical standards and protocols, as well as commercial policies relating to Top-Level Domains (TLDs). Indian negotiators are sensitive to the Tunis Agenda’s failure to fulfil its mandate, but it remains an important political instrument that flags the digital divide between developed and developing countries. The G77—in which India plays a leading role—will continue to coalesce around the Tunis Agenda. The U.S. government should acknowledge this reality, and invest diplomatic capital towards making the December UN high-level summit on the WSIS process a success.

In the interim, both countries would do well to pursue confidence building measures to sustain engagement. India should articulate a coherent and consistent line on its cyber politics that goes beyond the embrace of labels. The Indian government must not only step up its interactions with ICANN and the Internet Engineering Task Force in the policy development process, but also nudge commercial and non-commercial stakeholders in the country towards active participation. For its part, the U.S. government should eschew unilateral measures that undermine its guardianship of Internet infrastructure. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was critical of the United States’ “unilateral sanctions” against Russia, which include DNS restrictions in Crimea, though his Russian host would have probably liked stronger words. Buffeted by several political considerations, progress in the bilateral cyber dialogue will be incremental. India’s recent assertions nonetheless indicate, perhaps for the first time, its intent to pursue serious and substantive Internet diplomacy with the United States.

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