Who runs the internet?

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“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.”- Eric Schmidt

How does the internet run? Who governs it?

The internet is a giant global network of connected networks. There is no government or body or individual that decides how it should be run or what policies are to be followed so e.g. there are no globally applicable policies on issues such as intellectual property, privacy, internet freedom, net-neutrality, e-commerce and cybersecurity. From the technical point of view, it works because there is a Domain Name System (DNS) and an IP addressing system managed by the ICANN and standards and protocols such as TCP and IP developed by the IETF.

The DNS is really the heart of the internet, the “phone book” that lets us type domain names in the address bar (like yahoo.com), then translates them to IP addresses so that the correct servers can be reached and the correct pages loaded. A domain name is itself made up of two parts, the part on the right of the dot, such as “com”, “net” and “org” is called a “top-level domain” or TLD. Each TLD is handled by a company called a registry (e.g. VeriSign for .com and .net). The part before the dot is the actual domain name registered by the domain owner with a registrar such as Godaddy or Tucows. ICANN regulates the use of TLDs and creation of new TLDs through contracts with registries and accreditation of registrars.

ICANN is governed by an international board of directors, however, the U.S. Department of Commerce has final approval over changes to the DNS root zone (the master database of all top-level domain names). This arrangement is a historical legacy because the US Department of Defense developed the network technology from which the Internet evolved. ICANN receives inputs from governments too through a Government advisory committee (GAC). The GAC advises ICANN on public policy issues but its advice is not binding.

In March this year, US announced that it will not extend ICANN’s contract with the Department of Commerce which is due to expire in 2015 unless a transition plan is not in place. In other words, US would relinquish its control over the internet. But the US is clear it will not hand over the levers to any organization that can be controlled by any other country.

So what’s broken?

Most of the debate over internet governance has revolved around ICANN even though in recent memory other issues have gotten mixed up with it. ICANN has been criticized broadly on two fronts- one is that it is not transparent on policy issues; the other is many nations feel that the U.S. government holds undue control over the DNS because of its legacy role and technological prowess.

Let us look at the first one. In 2011 E.g., ICANN approved the creation of a new TLD (.xxx) for adult websites despite heavy opposition from conservative religious groups and the GAC over the impact of pornography; again in 2011 ICANN approved a programme under which hundreds of new TLDs have since been introduced into the DNS such as .museum, .plumbing and such like. ICANN has defended its actions on grounds of due process having been followed and adequate safeguards being in place and more competition, choice and innovation being available to consumers. But it is not that simple- organizations that have felt compelled to buy .xxx domains at steep prices simply to prevent misuse of their name argue this was just meant to benefit the registrar industry which are the main source of ICANN’s revenue. Similarly the proliferation of new TLDs has raised fears that fraudsters will be able to register scam websites that appear similar to genuine ones. Trademark holders fear they’ll not be able to protect their brand names online, recently France expressed anger over the planned launch of .vine and .vin TLDs.

The other criticism stems from the fact that a single nation controls key Internet functions. E.g. the U.S. government could potentially decide that certain countries don’t deserve to be on the internet because they repress human rights or sponsor terrorism and kill the country specific TLD records through their control of the root zone file. Indeed in the last few years, USA has seized hundreds of domains registered with American and even foreign registrars under a programme called “Operation in our sites” targeting sites believed to be hawking counterfeit goods. Since foreign registrars are not bound by US laws, this is achieved by serving court orders on VeriSign, the American company that controls the all-important .com and .net addresses. It may be noted- ICANN has never contracted a non-American registry.

More recently, after Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance both in the U.S. and abroad, criticism over the U.S.’s credibility to oversee DNS objectively has intensified tremendously. Even though it has become somewhat of a lightning rod for critics, it should be noted that NSA surveillance does not amount to abuse of the DNS, neither is it related to the functioning of the ICANN. NSA snooping has been made possible for two main reasons- one most of the world’s data passes through US servers. Why? Because most web content is hosted on American servers. Just look at our addictions to our respective Gmail, Youtube, Netflix and Facebook- all American companies. Indeed, roughly 25 % of the world’s internet traffic is accounted for by Google. Two, US has been directly tapping fibre-optic internet cables through tie-ups with several countries as part of a programme called RAMPART-A, revealed in the latest Snowden revelations.

Multi Stakeholder approach

So, after ICANN, what? There is no clarity on this issue. Broadly speaking, there is a tussle on the amount of leverage governments will exercise in the new body. There is a perception that an intergovernmental body will enhance the ability of authoritarian regimes like China and Russia to heavily censor and filter the internet. In my view, too much is being made out of the US ceding control over the ICANN. ICANN manages the technical aspects of the internet only and it has no say in e.g. what content Chinese citizens can or can’t access in their country. Despite ICANN being a multi-stakeholder, non-profit organization, different degrees of repression of internet freedom is practised in many countries of the world. China’s “Golden Shield” (aka the Great Firewall) blocks foreign websites and filters domestic content frowned upon by the authorities. Posts on online media are routinely taken down on government orders. As many as 40 countries practise some form of internet repression.

The real reason why internet governance has become a hot issue is the NSA surveillance. The revelation that USA has been looking at virtually all the data of the world has made other nations insecure, apart from lending some legitimacy to the existing repressive practices of authoritarian regimes. Brazil, whose President found her phone records being tapped, has already taken baby steps to bypassing US-eavesdropping- it wants all data related to Brazilians to be stored locally, it plans to create a US-free network by laying undersea cables linking Brazil directly to Europe and other South American countries, it plans to build more Internet exchange points to divert Brazilian traffic away from possible interception and it is planning to build an encrypted email service to reduce dependence on Gmail and suchlike. Other nations too may follow suit.

How far these plans are successful remain to be seen- they’ll cost a huge amount of money and may involve diversion of precious resources from developmental projects, apart from the fact that Brazilians will probably be able to circumvent these controls just like netizens in repressive countries do presently (proxy servers). Whether the USA will be able to tap these new undersea cables in the face of opposition also remains to be seen since presently it does have tie ups with several countries for that purpose. A move away from US-based services like Gmail may impact American business bottom lines.

The other aspect of course is that the NSA controversy may embolden repressive regimes to increase control over the internet within their national borders.

India’s position seems to be neither here or there. In 2011, at the IBSA (India, Brazil, South Africa) summit, India proposed a UN committee of 50 states- a setup that would place governments in a decision making role and other stakeholders in an advisory role which is a reversal of the present model of governance. At the NetMundial (meeting of the Internet governance forum) in Brazil earlier this year, its position was that it wants strong state presence in internet governance since the internet is used for core civil, economic and defence transactions, at the same time it wants unfettered access to knowledge.

There is indeed a case for national governments to have a say in internet freedoms within their borders given the ubiquity and powers of this medium, however most governments have been up-to no good when it comes to the internet and are rightly distrusted by netizens and other stakeholders. Reconciling these conflicting interests is virtually impossible and an interesting battle lies ahead.

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