Internet is greatly significant for India and, I believe, India is greatly significant for the internet.
This belief stems from two simple propositions. First, internet with its immense transformational potential can provide the means for sustainable and inclusive development in a country of 1.25 billion people — in areas such as education, health care, financial inclusion and service delivery. Second, with an internet user-base of over 125 million, which is likely to grow to about half-a-billion over the next few years, and an established mobile-base of 950 million, coupled with a large and talented pool of human resources, India will be a key player in tomorrow’s cyber world. In view of these complementary and mutually reinforcing positive externalities, India is deeply committed to free and unbridled growth and development of the internet. It is determined on its own and to persuade others to exploit this tremendous opportunity.
The accent is on free and unbridled growth. Do you consider the curbs on freedom are legitimate?
If you know something is wrong or incorrect, you should not put it on the internet. Since 2010, we have not done anything to regulate the internet, but we are the ones accused of controlling it. Yes, there are laws to protect individual freedoms, as well. Besides, infractions on the internet are all bailable offences. But if you hurt someone’s reputation on the internet, shouldn’t that person have recourse to the law?
So, how do you view the touchy issue of internet governance?
I personally believe that the term ‘internet governance’ is an oxymoron. Internet, by its very nature, cannot coexist with the concept of ‘governance’, which relates to a system designed for dealing with the issues of the physical world. The term ‘governance’ immediately invokes concepts of those who govern and those who are governed, which have no relevance in the cyberspace. Semantics apart, what we need today is to put in place a system designed for the cyberspace — a system which is collaborative, consultative, inclusive and consensual, for dealing with all public policies involving the internet.
How do you visualise this system?
It rests on four pillars that are rooted in the fundamental principles of democracy, inclusive growth, transparency and accountability.
First, it should be consultative, including all stakeholders in the decision-making process. Internet provides voice to the voiceless as never before in the history of mankind. This potential can be realised only by providing universal access and affordable devices. The digital divide must be relegated to the past — instead our communities must reap the benefits of the digital dividend. Such a consultative process should also factor regional and national sensitivities, besides vast diversities in language and culture.
Second, it should be evolutionary, with the processes evolving through a dialogue that is continuous and continuing. This is in keeping with the very nature of the internet, which is multi-dimensional, dynamic and evolving. A set of static frameworks is inappropriate for meeting the ever-changing requirements of the internet space.
Third, it should put in place a mechanism for accountability, in respect of crimes committed in cyberspace, such that the internet is a free and secure space for universal benefaction. A new cyber jurisprudence needs to be evolved to deal with cyber crimes, without being limited by political boundaries.
Last, it will be duly reflective of the ground realities, as to the manner of representation of stakeholders at all consultative forums.
What kind of a consultative forum do you envisage?
At a recent high-level ministerial meeting at the Internet Governance Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, I suggested the constitution of an international working group on enhanced cooperation. I said if we put together our collective wisdom, we would be able to soon make a transformational shift from today’s internet to tomorrow’s “equinet”. We are now on cusp of a new social contract that embraces all human beings. As a tool, it enables empowerment of people. We will fall short of the optimum, if this potential is not utilised.
Now, let’s talk about the other ministry you are handling — telecom. The finance ministry is hoping the auction of the resource you hold will be able to bridge the fiscal deficit somewhat...
I can’t share with you the details of the money we expect to get, but we have a system in place, which at once will be able to do justice to the government-held resource in terms of price-discovery and one-time licence fee.
The finance minister expects that about Rs 40,000 crore will be realised from spectrum in this financial year…
That figure might be a little on the higher side, but we have to see.
As an ordinary user, I am plagued by text messages and commercial telemarketing calls, despite registering to prevent such messages. Can’t you as the government do something about this?
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) is taking up the issue of pesky calls and SMSes. Even I face a lot of problems; every two minutes, I get such an SMS. People use international servers to send such text messages. This has to stop.
As telecom minister, a lawyer and a liberal Indian, you have to contend with freedom — but with responsibility. What is your view about the Right to Information (RTI) that the government sought to curb and truncate, but changed its mind about doing so recently?
I am the minister for IT and the governance framework for the internet. The internet has evolved itself into a powerful, ubiquitous, empowering and liberating medium, even though only a fragment of its full potential is known and has been exploited by us so far. Internet provides limitless opportunities for freedom of speech and expression. It perhaps is the nearest approximation to the utopian world of freedom.
The RTI flows from this freedom. My staunch belief is that India has tasted the power of the RTI. Curbing it now would be misunderstood. We must do our jobs, but also be prepared for scrutiny.