The growth of the internet has brought with it a significant rise in the issues pertaining to its governance. Globally there are ongoing deliberations on these issues

What must India do to offer a progressive Internet-as-an-essential-service in the coming 25 years?

Twenty-five years back India was at a very nascent state to provide Internet to its citizens. The launch of Public Internet in India on 15th August 1995, by Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL), turned to be the harbinger of today’s broadband services, which has been fundamental to the socio-economic growth of the country and is the prime engine of its digital transformation.

Digital Services Connectivity has emerged as a key enabler, empowering millions and bringing about exceptional transformation in India on several fronts – the national economy, socio-economic development, and the people’s way of living.

The transformative power of the Internet is very evident in the way we communicate, seek information, conduct trade, access health, and obtain other citizen-centric services. The widespread proliferation of the Internet has resulted in the delivery and offtake of digital services such as e-commerce, digital payments, e-banking, e-health, e-education, e-agriculture, among others, across the country and have been instrumental in improving the way we work and live. The recent COVID-19 crisis has further reinforced the important role of the internet not only for individuals but for the industry and the government as well.

Celebrating 25 years of internet provision in India, Broadband India Forum (BIF), the leading independent Think-Tank and Policy Forum for Digital Communications in the country, in association with BE, organized a virtual program on “Connecting Bharat” – to celebrate the incredible milestone of 25 years of the Internet in India, on 19th August 2020.

The forum, coinciding the occasion, brought out a White Paper on ‘Internet Governance & Digital Cooperation: A Recommended Way Forward for India’.

The White Paper was released on the occasion by Dr. R S Sharma, Chairman, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India as Chief Guest. B K Syngal, Principal Advisor, BIF and CMD of the erstwhile PSU called VSNL – the entity which was responsible for the launch of Public Internet services in India on 15th August 1995, was also present along with Sanjay Mashruwala, Managing Director, Reliance Jio; Ashwani Rana, Vice President, BIF and Chair of BIF’s Internet Content, Applications & Governance (ICAG) Committee, and Director of Public Policy at Facebook (India, South & Central Asia); and Randeep Raina, Chief Technology Officer, Nokia India.

Expressing his happiness on the occasion of India’s 25 years of Internet service, BIF President, T V Ramachandran, stated, “On the momentous occasion of the completion of 25 years of the launch of Public Internet in India, we must all look forward to being able to further facilitate internet access in a seamless, ubiquitous and affordable manner to an equal number of people as we have today (718 million Internet subs as per TRAI PIR Dec 2019), and drive the benefits of the Internet led digital revolution to reach each and every citizen in an all-inclusive manner. With the Internet becoming the underlying infrastructure for Digital Transformation, we at BIF, look to help facilitate internet access to the farthest reaches of the nation through a prudent mix of Mobile, Wi-Fi, Satcom, Cable and other new and innovative technologies.”

Picking salient points from the White Paper on ‘Internet Governance & Digital Cooperation: A Recommended Way Forward for India’

Broadband India Forum believes that the celebration of the 25th anniversary of Public Internet in India is a momentous occasion, and it is the complementary and convergent nature of the two segments (mobile and internet), which have led to the impressive story signifying the march of digital connectivity and digital services transformation across the country.

The White Paper on ‘Internet Governance & Digital Cooperation: A Recommended Way Forward for India’, co-authored by Amrita Choudhury, Director, CCAOI and T V Ramachandran, President, BIF, provides a summary of the learnings and key takeaways for India from the three-part Digital Dialogues series on Internet Governance organized by BIF and CCAOI, in association with BE, TSDSI and ICRIER (Knowledge Partner), and provides further recommendations on the action areas for Digital Cooperation from India’s perspective.

Internet in India

The growth of the internet has brought with it a significant rise in the issues pertaining to its governance. Globally there are ongoing deliberations on these issues at various forums, both at the intergovernmental level as well as on multi-stakeholder internet governance platforms.

As India aspires to be a leader in the digital revolution, Indian interests need to be clearly articulated, suitably positioned and protected both in the multilateral as well as in global Internet Governance forums such as Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Number (ICANN), and standardization platforms viz. Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), etc.

Offering her opinion, Amrita Choudhury, Director, CCAOI, said, “In the changing world order, it is imperative to enhance Indian engagement in global internet governance platforms, supported by adequate multi-stakeholder discussions within the country to formulate an India approach. This white paper is our attempt to initiate discussion on this important topic with suggestions such as setting up of the India IGF, hosting of IETF and IGF meetings in India, enhancing the role of the Industry and Academia in developing and setting standards; along with recommendations on the key action areas for India from the UN Secretary General’s report on Digital Cooperation.”

Listing the steps that recommend the way forward for India’s Internet

The key takeaways from the stimulating discussion series on Internet Governance were:
  • It is essential to reassess the existing Internet Governance views both from domestic and international perspective in light of the emerging technologies and the geopolitical situation.
  • India needs to adopt different approaches between domestic and global strategies on Internet Governance.
  • Need for enhancing digital cooperation among all stakeholders, both at the national and global levels for ensuring the objectives of India are met.
  • Initiate a dialogue to start a National Internet Governance Forum (India IGF) for initiating discussions within the country on issues pertinent to India and then develop a national point of view in a very inclusive manner that could be articulated in regional and global IG forums.
  • Need to organize more such capacity building sessions, technical workshops to build understanding among community members on technology, digital policies and issues, which in turn would improve greater participation from the community at the national and global level.
  • Role of the Industry and Academia needs to be enhanced significantly in standard-setting bodies such as IETF for developing standards that are in India’s interest.
  • Enhance stakeholder participation especially of the industry in Internet Governance platforms and their policy development processes would be in India’s strategic interest.
  • India has an opportunity to bid for hosting the future Global Internet Governance Forum such as for 2024 since the venue is yet to be finalized and proposals for hosting the same are being invited.
  • India should try to host an IETF meeting in India to enable more focus towards the standard-setting.
  • Need for enhancing digital cooperation among all stakeholders, both at the national and global levels for ensuring the objectives of India are met.
  • Initiate a dialogue to start a National Internet Governance Forum (India IGF) as this would encourage all stakeholders to start discussing on issues pertinent to India and then develop a national point of view in a very inclusive manner. This would then help stakeholders to articulate these views in all regional and global forums, including the IGF.
  • India has an opportunity to bid for hosting the World Internet Governance Forum in the future. For example, bid for 2024, since the venue is yet to be finalized and proposals for hosting the same is being invited.
  • Need to organize more such capacity building sessions, to build understanding among community members on digital policies and issues, which in turn would improve greater participation from the community at the national and global levels.
  • Encourage cooperation and sharing expertise and best practices both within the Indian community as well as in the region, to ensure the Internet functions efficiently.
  • Conduct regular training programs and technical workshops in India with the support of APNIC to build capacity in the country.
  • Encourage stakeholders to participate in the APNIC process, including the APNIC policy development process so that concerns of stakeholders can be raised at the right forums to resolve.

Roadmap to Digital Cooperation: Action areas from India’s perspective

Key areas of action from the Indian perspective: Some of the areas where India can focus on include:
  • Establish baselines regarding the fundamental level of digital connectivity at the national level.
  • Conduct national assessments of connectivity need in order to develop comprehensive connectivity plans.
  • Device a national data access framework based on the work done by organizations such as Digital Public Goods Alliance. Make suggestions to the government to incorporate in existing policies or policies under discussion.
  • Set up national metrics for digital inclusion.
  •  Deliberate on how to sustain digital capacity building initiatives, making them more need-based and sustainable. How to bring in greater coherence and coordination between the different in capacity-building efforts at a national level.
  • How to incorporate human rights standards while policies are being drafted.
  • Multi-stakeholder deliberation on how law & order situations can be tackled without the need for internet shutdowns or blocking.
  • How to improve representations and inclusiveness in matters of AI governance. How India can contribute to the proposed UN multi-stakeholder advisory body on global artificial intelligence cooperation now that it has agreed to join it.
  • Discussion on how to rebuild the trust online.
  • Follow up on the government’s open data policy and ensure there are standards set, based on global benchmarks for open data, without compromising data privacy and national security concerns.

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