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Nitin Pai: Leave the Net in US hands

The US Constitution, political system, civil society and media are better guardians of online free speech and privacy than some UN outfit

Nitin Pai
More Columns by Nitin Pai

In "Silver Blaze", one of the short stories published in The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, a famous race horse disappears from its stable. The following - and very famous - conversation ensues between Holmes and the police detective:

"Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?" (the detective asks).
"To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
"The dog did nothing in the night-time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes.

Governments of the world have been snooping on enemies, allies, courtiers, popes and citizens since time immemorial. Intercepting communications has always been part of the normal activity of statecraft.

The telephone began to be tapped almost as soon as it came into popular use in the 1890s. Long before became famous as "whistleblower", Herbert Yardley, a pioneering US cryptologist, revealed in his memoirs that coded telegrams "were obtained by the consent and authority of the respective presidents of the Western Union Telegraph Company and of the Postal Telegraph Company...." What Google, Facebook and Skype have been doing by participating in the United States National Security Agency's PRISM programme is hardly new. Old telecom company hands will tell you about how intelligence and security agencies of the world need to be satisfied before they clear satellite and undersea cable projects.

The US is not the only one that does it. Yet for the last few years we have been almost exclusively preoccupied with its actions. The reason, at least in part, is the curious incidents of dogs not barking. We have not heard from the Russian, Chinese, Brazilian or European Union counterparts of the Americans Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden, who revealed to the world what they considered the illegal and immoral snooping activities of their government.

We do know from affected and third parties that Russian and Chinese "hackers" are using sophisticated methods to snoop on internet communications. Somehow, though, Russian, Chinese, Brazilian or even Indian Snowdens do not seem to exist. Or, if they do, bark.

This is important to the ongoing debate on internet governance. Many governments have seized upon Mr Snowden's revelations to bolster their long-standing efforts to wrest control of the internet from US hands. They would like to place key levers and functions of the internet in the hands of international multilateral organisations, including under the United Nations (UN). However, despite what many claim, their efforts are mostly not motivated by concern for privacy or free speech. Geopolitical and geo-economic factors tell this story much better than lofty principles.

New Delhi, with its habit of going with the flow of international multilateralism, is willy-nilly throwing its lot with China, Russia, Brazil and others that are leading the charge against the US for their own reasons. This enthusiasm is fashionable and popular with activists, but misplaced in the context of our national interests.

Both principle and realpolitik suggest that India is better off with continued US preponderance in internet governance.

The US Constitution, political system, and are better guardians of online free speech and privacy than some UN outfit. Yes, the US is massively spying on us, but it also produces the Mannings, Snowdens and Greenwalds that rightly or wrongly, but fearlessly, tell us what is happening. In a way, the rest of the world vicariously benefits from the US' commitment to liberty.

If we were instead to put a UN body in charge, sooner or later we'd have countries like China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan making decisions affecting our free speech and privacy. If you want to know what that might result in, just look at the UN Human Rights Council, set up with much fanfare around a decade ago with the backing of the US, India and other democracies. As a result, every year from 2006 to 2010, this outfit passed resolutions prohibiting the "defamation of religion" pushed by countries more concerned about protecting prophets and gods than the liberties of their citizens.

There's nothing to prevent a future UN cyberspace council from similarly enshrining illiberal values as international norms. UN control of the internet won't prevent countries from violating our privacy. It is more likely to give them a seal of approval.

Beyond principle, India has little to gain if the balance of power in cyberspace shifts away from the US. It is misleading to take the cue from China, whose calculations are different. After erecting a defensive political perimeter around its citizens by cutting them off from the global internet, Beijing now seeks to grab a larger share of the global commerce in cyberspace. On both these counts, China benefits from diluting US power in rule making for the internet.

On the other hand, India's geopolitical and economic interests in cyberspace lie in greater partnership with the US. It is more important to strengthen bilateral cyber security consultations and cyber policy dialogues than to participate in forums promoted by states that have an interest in ganging up against Washington.

Where the dog barks, law usually catches up with technology. We should be more wary of curious incidents.

The writer is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent think tank

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