The techno-political debate is bitterly polarised, with many arguing for status quo

Earlier this week, at the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development, held in Geneva, India reiterated its proposal to create a Committee on Internet-related Policies (CIRP). This proposal, backed by many others in the global south, aims at democratising the Internet and critical resources that are currently controlled by the U.S., big businesses and powerful nations in various other governance forums.

The proposed CIRP will be a multilateral institution, where governments will sit together and take decisions on internet policies, treaties and standards. Not surprisingly, many have interpreted this as a move towards greater governmental control of the Web (read tighter censorship), even as others have lauded this as a progressive step towards greater democratisation of the internet. This techno-political debate is bitterly polarised, with experts and stakeholders, often backed by powerful lobbies, arguing for status quo with the U.S.-based non-profit ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) calling the shots, insisting that critical Internet resources cannot be controlled efficiently by a bureaucratic body like the UN,or governments that lack the expertise to keep pace with rapid technological challenges.

Amidst speculation that India might roll back its earlier proposal, in Geneva, Indian representatives went ahead and called for ‘enhanced cooperation' to enable governments on an equal footing to carry out their roles and responsibilities pertaining to the Internet, and promote a “developmental agenda” for the Web.

The U.S., and corporate lobbies (most big Internet firms being U.S.-based or operating out of other developed countries) have argued for retaining the current structure, where ICANN (which already has a governing council with government representatives) retains control over Internet technologies. They argue that though jurisdictionally under the U.S., the ICANN is more likely to retain the democratic and free structure of the Internet. They argue that governments, in general, are more likely to stifle free speech, and by extension, that the US is more likely to uphold commitments to free speech on the web.

However, recent events such as the clamp-down on Wikileaks (where web companies cut off payment pathways and services to the whistleblower site, reportedly upon government request) and recently proposed Bills such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) — which manipulate the domain name system (DNS) infrastructure to enforce Intellectual Property laws — make a mockery of these claims.

Technological debate

There are two sides to this debate: one that purely deals with the techno-political aspect of the control of the Internet, and the other that deals with social and political policy debates. In purely technological terms, this debate revolved around the DNS root name servers or the Internet Domain Name System, which forms the backbone of communication on the Web.

The DNS is a large database used by Internet applications to map or translate Web URLs (for instance, www.thehindu.com) to a unique IP address. All the generic names and the IP addresses for all top level domains (for the purpose of mapping) are stored in what is called a root zone file. So when you type in a URL address in your browser's address bar, a query is sent to the DNS (often through your Internet service provider's servers, which often caches this information so queries don't have to be sent every single time) which translates it into the numeric IP address. While, as users, this saves us the trouble of remembering numbers and codes, the larger benefits of course have to do with the fact that you can access any site from anywhere.

Indeed, there is some obfuscation on what these servers, and by extension technological control, are all about. At the core of the DNS system are 13 root servers controlled by 12 separate organisations and private entities, or operators. There are many hundreds of root servers at over 130 physical locations in many different countries, says an official ICANN blog that seeks to bust myths on how the U.S. controls the Internet through 13 root servers. Sometimes, one server is located in over 25 countries, it clarified.

However, what really matters here is who controls the root zone file. This file contains the domain names and IP addresses that enable the querying-mapping process. The root zone file, and access or authority to edit it, is what is crucial in this debate because finally the architecture of the DNS system, and in essence the Internet, is dependent on how this file is handled. So, a domain is valid only if it is there on this file. As of now, this root zone file is controlled by the ICANN.

Why not ICANN?

But why is it problematic that the authority to manipulate this file lies with a body like the ICANN? ICANN continues to be a non-profit registered in the U.S., one that is subject to decisions and laws made by the U.S. government. For instance, under the pretext of enforcing an IP regime, the U.S. can enforce alterations to the DNS system, as was proposed in the SOPA legislation, which was retracted after web companies and tech activists lobbied against it, earlier this year.

So what is the solution? It is not surprising that India's proposal to the UN, for pure governmental control, is being perceived as problematic, given recent announcements by Indian politicians expressing the desire to “regulate” social media or “pre-screen what appears on the Web. Indeed, governments across the world, have now and then, sought to clamp down on the Internet.

Tech commentators have also argued that under indirect US control, ICANN has in recent years restricted its mandate to technical domains, and may be a better alternative than a UN body. But then where does the developing world's point of view fit in? “By and large, it is legitimate to say that to have one powerful country control the Internet is illegitimate. The UN bodies have a better track record as far as democratic methods go, where countries can sit together and vote. Which is why the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries are pushing for more equal control of the Internet as it is a global resource,” says Senthil S, member of the Free Software Movement of India. However, the UN will have to ensure that it promotes a body without censorship so that internet governance can be more democratic.

Commenting on this debate, Parminder Jeet Singh, executive director of Bangalore-based NGO, IT for Change, seeks to draw the line between issues of technical governance or management and other cultural, social and political aspects of Internet governance.

While the Internet's technical governance — albiet being dominated by big business - is indeed a very distributed and open system, issues related to larger public policies concerning social, economic, cultural and political matters are much more important and are neglected in this debate, Mr. Singh said. He also commented on how Internet monopoly companies are increasingly deciding policy matters, and questioned why bodies such as the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Council of Europe should make policies without consulting developing countries.