The internet is freest in US hands

Internationalising internet governance will abridge liberty and restrict free speech

Edward Snowden’s revelations have strengthened demands for “extricating the internet from US control.” This is not a new phenomenon. Ever since Jon Postel died in 1998, governments and non-government organisations have been engaged in a long, complex and meandering process of somehow taking control over the internet. However, while outfits like ICANN and assorted United Nations forums have gotten into the act of “internet governance”, much of the internet remains in US hands. China might well be the country that has more internet users, but it has locked its citizens behind the Great Firewall and effectively created its own national intranet.

Mr Snowden’s revelations are grave, but shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with national security issues or the communications infrastructure business. So while a lot of international reaction is properly in the Captain Renault (“I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!”) category, there are some attempts by governments to secure greater control over internet. China, Russia and Brazil are expected to raise the pitch in the coming months.

It would be terrible thing if they succeed. Whatever the imperfections, whatever the US government’s transgressions, we are better off with as much of the internet coming under the US Constitution than the UN Charter.

Why so? Because there is no better political system—the constitution, separation of powers, civil society and citizens—than the United States today that can protect liberty and free speech. Start with Mr Snowden. Where is Russia’s Snowden? Where is China’s Snowden? Where is Brazil’s Snowden? The United States has strong and vocal free speech and privacy advocates who can hold their government accountable without fear of harm. It has a judicial system that is sufficiently independent as to overrule the executive if found violating the US constitution. Despite what cynics in the United States and detractors around the world say, the US system works. To the extent that it does, it protects everyone’s liberties (albeit to a lesser degree than it protects the liberties of US citizens).

For those who contend that this isn’t good enough, consider the alternative. The vast United Nations system that is accountable to exactly no one. The General Assembly has almost two hundred nation-states as members with varying degrees of commitment to upholding liberty. The Security Council reflects the balance of interests its permanent members, where such paragons of free speech as Russia and China have a veto. Let’s say that the UN creates a brand new UN Internet Governance Council to sit at the helm of internet governance. What is to prevent it from going the way of the UN Human Rights Council, where you don’t need any commitment to human rights to be a member, and where you can rule that free speech shouldn’t defame religion.

Now, those who argue that national governments must control the internet because they must exercise their sovereignty over their ‘territory’ of cyberspace have a logical argument when they call for the internationalisation of internet governance. However, it is unfathomable why proponents of free speech and liberty would want the world’s authoritarian regimes to have a say on how the internet is governed.

Calls for “extricating the internet from US control” are effectively facades for authoritarian states to further abridge the liberties of the world’s citizens. That is why they must be resisted. Indians are much better off putting their faith in their freedom-loving American counterparts than participating in grandiose international internet governance schemes.

What should India do about US snooping?

How do you solve a problem like Maria?

Boundless Informant Heat Map

According to reports in The Guardian—based on information illegally divulged by NSA contractor Edward Snowden—we know that India is among the top ten countries that the United States snoops on. In March 2013 alone, one of NSA’s programmes collected 6.3 billion pieces of information from India. (Yes, all the hoopla in the US about spying is limited to outrage over the US government spying on its own citizens. Spying on other countries’ citizens is somehow acceptable to many freedom- and privacy-loving Americans.)

What should the Indian government do about this? Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. High officials can express their disapproval. The foreign ministry can register a strong written protest. The US ambassador can be told in no uncertain terms that New Delhi is displeased with the snooping. Essentially, nothing actually changes.

2. Take defensive measures. It is incredibly hard to defend Indian communications networks against the kind of surveillance that the NSA is carrying out. It is impossible to harden all networks—although the government can attempt to move its employees onto more secure platforms. When so many government employees still use Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo for correspondence with people outside government, there is a lot that the government can do to make official communications more secure. This still leaves public communications heavily vulnerable to snooping by one and all.

3. Attempt to achieve a balance-of-snooping. Start snooping on ordinary Americans (okay, suspected terrorists only) until the US government gets concerned. Then negotiate a truce to control snooping, much like arms control deals that managed arms races. Even if cyberspace offers asymmetric opportunities, the gap in capacities between India and the United States are mindbogglingly large. It will takes years of sustained investment and effort for the Indian government to do anything that’ll worry the US government enough to want to negotiate. The Chinese might be able to pull this off, though.

4. If you can’t stop them, join them. Use the India-US strategic partnership to collaborate with the United States in the cyber-surveillance and intelligence domains and use the collaboration to acquire skills, capabilities and technology that India does not currently have. Once such capabilities are acquired, India will have more options.

Update: I make some of these points in an NDTV programme.

Why study 26/11 when it’s easier to bury it?

Democracy cannot operate without sunlight

Y P Rajesh in the Indian Express on Mumbai’s unanswered questions:

26/11 deserved an inquiry commission on the lines of the US commission that probed 9/11 and went on to blame the FBI and the CIA for intelligence failures. Particularly since the failures in India involved central and state, civilian and military agencies. But all that Mumbai got was a state-level exploratory trip by two retired officials who had to rely on police officers volunteering information, and even those findings were buried. [IE]

Now, inquiry commissions, in the India context are more often used to put an issue with explosive political implications first into suspended animation and then into deep freeze. They are also used as political trump cards whenever the ruling party badly needs one.

But not constituting one, or creating one flippantly, ensures that even the small chance that policy lessons will be learnt disappears. It is bad governance—there is no systematic study of what went wrong and what went right, citizens do not know what to demand of their politicians (even if the citizens of South Bombay cared about such things) and culprits at all levels of government do not even get called out. Shame.

This is not to say that 26/11 didn’t compel the Indian government to get a lot more serious about internal security than on 25th November 2008. Appointing P Chidambaram as home minister was the first such move. He has injected a degree of purposefulness in the government’s security apparatus. The home ministry might have drawn some lessons from 26/11. But we are none the wiser.

The least the UPA government can do on the first anniversary of one of the worst terrorist attacks on India is to offer an honest appraisal of the entire episode.

South Asia Analysis Group, at a new location

New internet coordinates, same good stuff

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