If you thought that no one controls the Internet, that it has no borders and needs no governance, it may border on the naivete.

Umpteen instances of cyber spying, cyber wars, blocking of Internet sites, Net neutrality that goes against access in cyberspace and online snooping of user information by government agencies, including those from the US, China, Egypt, Syria and India, have put these myths to rest and raised privacy and geopolitical concerns, forcing governments across the world to rethink governance issues on the Internet.

More than 1,500 representatives of governments, business and civil society are gathering in Bali to examine such cross-border Internet governance challenges at the annual four-day session of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which begins on 22 October.

Not that any of these issues are new, but they keep gaining importance with every passing day as the world’s Internet population keeps on rising. By end 2013, 40% of the world’s population—2.7 billion people—are estimated to be online, as mobile broadband has become the fastest-growing segment of the global information and communication technology (ICT) market, according to a 7 October United Nations report.

The annual report of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) estimates that by the end of 2013, there will be some 6.8 billion mobile-cellular subscription, almost as many as there are people on earth.

The Internet has become “an essential tool for the creation of jobs and the delivery of basic public services", Wu Hongbo, UN under-secretary-general for economic and social affairs, said in a statement, adding it is also essential “for improving access to knowledge and education, for empowering women, for enhancing transparency, and for giving marginalized populations a voice in decision-making processes".

However, though there is a exponential rise in the number of Internet users, the trend is not necessarily bridging the digital divide. Many users continue to be denied online access, either because their governments have decided to do so or simply because they are too poor to afford connectivity.

On 7 October, leaders of organizations responsible for coordination of the Internet technical infrastructure globally—including the African Network Information Center (AFRINIC), American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN), Asia-Pacific Network Information Centre (APNIC), Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Society, and World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—met in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, to consider current issues affecting the future of the Internet.

The leaders reinforced the importance of globally coherent Internet operations, and warned against Internet fragmentation at a national level. They expressed strong concern over the undermining of the trust and confidence of Internet users globally due to recent revelations of pervasive monitoring and surveillance.

They also called for accelerating the globalization of the functions of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), towards an environment in which all stakeholders, including all governments, participate on an equal footing.

Currently, the Internet is coordinated by ICANN, a private non-profit organization, which was set up by the US in 1998 to take over the activities performed for three decades by a single professor in California, Jonathan Bruce Postel. As a graduate student in the 1960s, he was among the handful of engineers who built the Internet. For the next 30 years, he managed it on behalf of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which funded the Internet’s initial development.

ICANN now oversees technical matters and co-ordination of the domain-name system (such as .com and .net), national addresses (such as China’s .cn or India’s .in) and routing numbers that identify traffic on the Internet. But governments have long argued that the Internet should be administered under a multilateral treaty and not unilaterally by the US since many governments perceive ICANN to be an instrument of American hegemony over cyberspace.

Efforts to rectify matters were initiated in December 2003 in Geneva, then during the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia in November 2005. In November 2004, UN secretary-general Kofi Annan appointed a 40-person working group to address questions of Internet governance.

But nothing much came out of these discussions.

On 17 October, the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported that India expressed reservations over control of critical Internet resources like allocation of domain names by a US-contracted entity (ICANN), saying this cannot really be reflective of the international character or community of Internet users. Deputy national security adviser Nehchal Sandhu, according to the report, said Internet has become a global phenomena and therefore its management must reflect this universality and diversity.

Meanwhile, the spying scandal of the National Security Agency (NSA) of the US, too, that has embittered relations between Brazil and the US, reflected clearly in the Montevideo meeting.

The US has been monitoring communications between US and foreign nationals over the Internet for years under a project called PRISM, according to an 8 June report by The Guardian. The UK newspaper said it has acquired top-secret documents about the NSA data-mining tool, called Boundless Informant, that details and even maps by country the voluminous amount of information it collects from computer and telephone networks. Around 6.3 billion reports were collected from India alone, the report said.

Reacting to some earlier reports on the same issue, James R. Clapper, director of national intelligence in the US issued a statement on 6 June, saying that The Guardian and The Washington Post articles “contain numerous inaccuracies", but acknowledged that, “Section 702 is a provision of FISA that is designed to facilitate the acquisition of foreign intelligence information concerning non-US persons located outside the United States..."

The US government also issued releases to clarify that the reports were misleading since the usage of such information or metadata (analytics of the humongous amounts of data intercepted) is used only after a due legal process.

Nevertheless, this assurance provides little comfort given that around 40 countries filter the Internet in varying degrees, including democratic and non-democratic governments. YouTube and Gmail (both from Google), BlackBerry Ltd, WikiLeaks, Twitter and Facebook have all been censored, at different times, in China, Iran, Egypt and other countries, including India.

The Indian government’s own central monitoring system (CMS) was described as “chilling, given its reckless and irresponsible use of the sedition and Internet laws", according to the Human Rights Watch in a 7 June statement. In April, the Indian government began rolling out CMS, which will enable it to monitor all phone and Internet communication in the country.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, after conferring in Brasilia with Fadi Chehadé, chief executive officer of ICANN, announced that Brazil will host in April an international summit of governments, industry, civil society and academia to discuss Brazil’s suggestions for upgrading Internet security. The summit will take place in Rio de Janeiro.

Such pressure by governments across the world will hopefully make the Internet a better and safer place to surf.

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