On 30 September, a major development related to the Internet took place. Until then, the US department of commerce (DoC) had overall control of the conduct of the unique identifiers of the Internet and administered that through a non-profit body called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). Now DoC has ceded its singular control to a multi-stakeholder body. This opens a new chapter in the Internet’s democratization, helping make the Web truly worldwide.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The new arrangement, under the affirmation of commitments (AoC), allows ICANN to remain as an independent, private and non-profit body, responsible for the technical coordination of the Internet’s domain name and addressing system and also for the stable and secure operation of the Internet’s unique identifier systems. Its vision will be guided by the Internet community, where a governmental advisory committee (GAC) will direct the final policy, instead of the US alone. While the US will remain a member of GAC, even today this body consists of 100 members, including India. AoC also mandates that ICANN’s accountability to the Internet community must be reviewed at least every three years by a committee composed of the various stakeholders, including the DoC representative.
While the decision might not be the complete democratization of the Internet, it is certainly a significant step forward. The Internet started as a US defence initiative in the late 1960s, then moved to the public domain and spread across the globe.
But the sustainable explosive growth of the medium needed a coordinated technical infrastructure to perform round the clock across the globe. Growing Internet traffic needed proper routing and management. All this was superbly managed and coordinated over the last three decades with US oversight. ICANN was responsible for conducting the domain name system (DNS), which covers the Internet addresses and their allocation and traffic management.
However, many nations, including those in the European Union, started the clarion calls for democratization of the control of the Internet. Many of these calls were centred on the fact that one nation’s management might lead to unwanted control, stifling a medium that needed to be available all the time.
It’s not as if the US has abused its position. Its track record has been excellent so far—it has ensured all timely interventions to allow the Internet to grow and proliferate. However, along with questions of further growth, many issues of usage have crept in. These issues need to be handled and it can be best done in a multi-stakeholder fashion, since they often involve local parameters.
Managing Internet resources, especially at the local levels, is getting more and more necessary —consider the importance given to local language content. Similarly, local laws to handle issues of usage need to be strengthened, and they all need to set the terms for a global legal standpoint on which Internet-related crimes and offences are addressed. There is a growing tendency for state and non-state actors (including terrorists) to use the geographical advantage of the Internet to launch attacks from distant networks.
Besides ensuring the accountability, transparency and the interests of the global users, there is a great need to keep the medium free—content should not be throttled, as is being seen in a few countries. Privacy of the medium is still far from satisfactory in many countries. Likewise, there is major work required ahead in promoting consumer trust and consumer choice: Despite the advantages of e-commerce, consumers are either too ill-informed or scared to trust the medium.
It’s in this light that multilateral efforts to manage the Internet have sprung up.
In 2003, in the first phase of the first ever summit of the information society organized by the United Nations (UN), these issues were raised. They were then addressed by the setting up of the multi-stakeholder Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in 2006, based on the recommendations of the second phase of the same summit in 2005. IGF has since been functioning, but it has yet to devise a working mechanism on the matter. Neither is it being seen as a strong enough effort to ultimately recommend Internet management under the UN’s umbrella, nor do its efforts seem to culminate in a working model for the issue. In the absence of coordination on IGF’s part, many nations have been working on setting up parallel Internet systems—this would complicate existing efforts, and result in a politically unwise situation.
Unlike IGF, AoC clearly addresses the relevant issues, that too at the right time. The fact that the ICANN model started about a decade back and has worked is a good indicator to the global community of managing many other serious issues on the communications front. Meanwhile, the global Internet population has grown at least 300% this century. Presently, around 1.5 billion are connected, roughly around 23% of the global population. Better management will help bring the world’s Web to the remaining 77% of the planet.
Subimal Bhattacharjee is currently country head, India, General Dynamics, and writes on cyberspace issues. The views expressed here are personal. Comments are welcome at email@example.com