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Can the U.S. Work with India in Cyberspace?

by Adam Segal
May 30, 2012

Workers are seen at their workstations on the floor of an outsourcing centre in Bangalore, February 29, 2012. (Vivek Prakash / Courtesy Reuters) Workers are seen at their workstations on the floor of an outsourcing centre in Bangalore, February 29, 2012. (Vivek Prakash / Courtesy Reuters)

Eric Heginbotham and George Gilboy have a new book, Chinese and Indian Strategic Behavior, looking at the rise of China and India. One of their main points is a warning directed at U.S. policymakers who think that India is going to be a counterweight to China. Delhi has many of its own interests and in many instances—Iran, trade, and proliferation—those interests are closer to Beijing’s than Washington’s. China and India “both pursue a common agenda at the U.N. and other security bodies: a strict interpretation of state sovereignty and a protection of the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other states.”

Cyberspace is one of the arenas where India’s pursuit of its own interests could result in policy stances that disappoint American policymakers. The natural assumption is that the two multi-ethnic democracies with independent, vibrant presses have much in common. Both value free speech yet have to balance the trade-offs between anonymity and security. Both have innovative IT industries that benefit from global, transparent security standards. Both appear to have been victims of cyber espionage originating from China. And Anonymous has mounted campaigns against government and business websites in both countries for what the activist group sees as web censorship.

And yet.  The Information Technology (Intermediaries Guidelines) Rules, 2011, will severely restrict, if not eliminate, safe harbor protection for intermediaries—Internet service providers, search engines, and social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Any person offended by harassing, obscene, hateful, disparaging, libelous, or other ill-defined but offensive content can request it be taken down; the intermediaries have 36 hours to comply, while the creator of the content has no way to reply or defend himself. In December 2011, Communications and Information Technology Minister Kapal Sibal asked Internet companies to pre-screen materials and remove offensive comments. Soon after, The Press Trust of India carried a widely cited story quoting a judge saying “that ‘like China,’ India might be compelled to block certain Web sites that contained obscene or offensive material.”

Internet governance is likely to be a sticking point. The United States opposes efforts to give the United Nations control over the Internet, promoting “multistakeholderism” or the idea that the Net should continue to be governed by civil society, technical, and non-governmental groups. While Delhi has committed to “creating a citizen-centric and business-centric environment to connect all human beings to the information highway” it argues that “coordination is required by all stakeholders including governments to maintain its open character.” At the United Nations, India proposed in 2011 the creation of a Committee on Internet-Related Policies compromised of 50 states advised by four advisory groups from civil society, the private sector, inter-governmental and international organizations, and the technical and academic communities. Proponents have argued that this is not an effort to control the Internet or roll-up the stakeholder model, but instead is a necessary democratization of governance that prevents the Internet from “becoming an instrument of further entrenching the geo-economic and geo-political powers of the North, chiefly the U.S.

To be honest, this is not an argument that the Government of India seems all that enthusiastic about having with the United States right now. At a public forum this month, National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon stated:

“Most proposals for international internet governance are thinly masked efforts to control or shape the internet, and that some are ideologically driven. Inter-governmental rules of the road are certainly desirable. No one can argue against them. But in my personal view we must be clear that they will not have practical effect or be followed unless they are in the clear self-interest of those who should be following them. Let us, therefore, concentrate on putting our own cyber security house in order. That should be our first priority.”

For the United States this means that bilateral talks, especially those focusing on cybersecurity cooperation, are likely to continue to progress fairly smoothly. But if the United States hopes that India (and Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and other emerging powers) will act as a counterbalance to China in cyberspace, it has to do more to address the issue of the democratization of Internet governance. Simply opposing the United Nation’s control over the Internet is not enough.

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