Understand the medium before regulating it

There is complete lack of understanding of the Internet among governments across the world. Until we make sense of the Internet, isn’t it better to regulate it with the same rules and regulations that govern our everyday lives?
Written by Swati Prasad, Contributor

Two days back, I attended a panel discussion on "India's Position in the UN on Internet Governance", a multi-stakeholder discussion organized by trade body, Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

Most panelists opposed the Indian government's decision to establish a global body to regulate Internet content. They felt India must withdraw its consent to such a proposal. Besides, they argued that the government had taken a unilateral decision on Internet governance without discussing it with the civil society members, industry or academicians.

The panelists included Ambassador A Gopinathan, India's former permanent representative to the UN; Virat Bhatia, chairman of Communication and Digital Economy Committee at FICCI; Rajeev Chandrashekhar, businessman and Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha; Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of IT for Change; Sunil Abraham, executive director of Center for Internet and Society; Mahesh Uppal, adviser for Internet Service Providers Association of India (ISPAI); Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, president of Foundation for Media Professional; Naresh Ajwani, member of NRO NC-Asia Pacific Network Information Center (APNIC); and Vikram Tiwathia, associate director-general of Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI).

India had favored an international proposal to regulate Internet content through a United Nations Committee on Internet Related Policies (CIRP) comprising 50 bureaucrats from the UN Member countries. India concurred with the CIRP on Oct. 26, 2011, by making a statement at the 66th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York.

With each country having a different political system and culture, it will surely not be easy to regulate the Internet through a UN committee. Each one of the 2.3 billion people on this planet that use the World Wide Web has a different approach to the medium. Some use it for research, some for entertainment, yet others for espionage, some for knowledge and networking and some even for crime.

While the discussion was on, I wondered why Ficci was holding this debate after nearly one year. After all, India had concurred with the CIRP in October 2011.

I also noticed a lot of acronyms and abbreviations being used, making the entire debate a little difficult to understand. Thakurta, a senior journalist, said he found himself "in an alphabetic soup".

The panelists described the Internet quite differently. Some people called it an elephant in a dark room--"it is so huge that you don't know which part of its body you may be feeling". Another person from the audience (an academician) said it is nothing but an elephant. "It is a rather fast medium," she said.

So what is the answer? Many think that the Internet should remain free. But does that mean we make ourselves vulnerable to Internet crimes and espionages? There are so many privacy and security concerns. And with new applications being created every day, one does not know which new application can put your privacy or security at risk.

What if you regulate the Internet? Wouldn't that impinge on our freedom of speech? How can you stop a citizen of a democratic country from giving out her/his views on political matters, on politicians and on anything under the sun? If you stop them, then how are you different from totalitarian regimes?

There are no easy answers to all these questions, for nobody really understands the Internet completely. I have my own view on this--we need to treat the Internet as a part of the real world (as opposed to virtual). The very laws that govern us in our daily lives should govern us in the Internet world. If someone is defaming somebody on a Web site, file a defamation suit. Use the Internet to locate criminals (whether they are cybercriminals or roadside criminals doesn't really matter).

The police and administration need to understand and befriend the Internet before they think of coming out with separate regulations that govern it. They need to use the information available on the Internet for strengthening national security. Once that is done, then regulating it shouldn't be all that difficult.

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