IGF: In celebration of the Internet | OPINION

By Dr. Jaijit Bhattacharya

A fortnight from now, India will be hosting the India Internet Governance Forum (IIGF or India IGF), under the aegis of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum (or UN IGF in short). This is a good time to pause and evaluate a new universe that was created a few decades ago, and transformed how humanity interacts, works, lives and fights.

We developed a parallel cyber universe for almost everything we do in the physical dimension from love to war, we replicated everything to the cyber universe and accelerated it all. Life has become easier, better, more convenient and healthier. Life has also become polarised, hateful, misinformed and dangerous. These are the contradictory aspects of the new universe that was created from bits and bytes and wires and chips.

So, how did we end up having an UN IGF as a place of discussion for guiding the internet? It started in pretty much the same way that the Indian National Congress was formed as a pressure releaser for the murmurings and discontent from the existing regime. But what was the issue with the then existing internet regime in 2006?

The root of the problem lies in many things, including the root of the internet the 13 root servers and who controls them. In a very simplistic way, the internet is primarily run by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) and Internet Engineering Taskforce (IETF). ICANN (formerly IANA) defines the domain names that we use and helps us find the servers where these domain names hold the information that we aim to seek. So in a way, it is the postal service of the internet, without which, one would not be able to access information on the internet in the easy manner that we access it today.

And where are these “addresses” or DNS (Domain Name System) stored? They are kept in a redundant manner in the 13 root servers across the USA, Europe and a lone one in Japan. So if someone goes and deletes the “.in” Top Level Domain (TLD) for India from these root servers, then none of the websites that end with “.in” will be accessible. In a world that is increasingly dependent on the internet for business and for how we live, the consequences would be catastrophic. And therefore, it became pertinent to ask who controls these servers.

The answer obviously is that ICANN controls them. And so in 2006, who controlled ICANN? ICANN was operating under a contract from the Department of Commerce of the USA government. So, in essence, the internet was being controlled by the USA.

In addition, the ultimate control of the DNS root zone was under the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), an agency of the US Department of Commerce. Considering that the US Department of Commerce could unilaterally terminate the Affirmation of Commitments with ICANN, the authority of DNS administration was controlled by a single state, namely the United States.

Now imagine our military is preparing to meet a contingent situation at the borders and the internet is brought down for India. Our e-commerce, logistics, supply-chain and pretty much the entire economy will come crashing down. How will our military be able to secure the supply lines required for meeting an operational requirement at the borders? Or for that matter, how will we supply grains to those who need it? If this still looks like science fiction, do pause and digest that automobile manufacturers could not manufacture enough vehicles in the last few months as there weren’t enough semiconductor chips available. Every process is dependent on digital, semiconductors and the internet.

In this context, when the comity of nations started questioning the hegemony of the USA on the internet, it led to the formation of the UN IGF, to let people discuss and let the steam out.

When the involvement of NTIA started in 1998, it was supposed to be temporal. But it wasn’t until April 2014 at an ICANN meeting held in Brazil, partly driven by the Snowden revelations of US snooping, that this situation changed, resulting in an important shift of control transitioning administrative duties of the DNS root zones from NTIA to the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) during a period that ended in September 2016. The control has apparently now shifted to an innovative governance mechanism termed as “Multistakeholderism”.

The idea of multistakeholderism sprouted from the spirited movement of trying to bring the Internet under the control of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which is under the UN. It was an innocuous movement as it was based on the unassailable premise that the internet belongs to all and hence it cannot be controlled by only one government and hence it should be brought under the UN.

But as it turns out, the UN is no parable of democratic principles. It is pretty much controlled by the Security Council, which has, among others, nations such as China and Russia — both of which are not usually known to play by the rule of law. Thus, there was a real danger of the internet slipping into the dark abyss of government controls and severe censorship. So what could one do?

Clearly, it is unacceptable to have one government control something as powerful as the internet, but then again, handing it over to an institution where rogue regimes have disproportionate say was also not an option. Under the circumstances, the concept of multistakeholderism was invented and it basically said: let the global society run the internet, bypassing the deadening hands of the various governments. And that is how the Internet is now supposedly being governed. And this concept got created at the UN IGF.

To further this concept, each country started holding their own IGF under the aegis of the UN IGF. And that is how India will be hosting its first India Internet Governance forum in the second week of November, against the background of the fierce digital geopolitics that the platform was a part of. No wonder IndiaIGF.in will be graced by the Prime Minister and many of the drivers of policy making and captains of the industry, including Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Ajit Doval and so on.

It would also highlight the stupendous progress made by India in setting up one of the largest internet networks in the world and in having one of the largest number of people connected to the internet.

It is a time to celebrate the digital achievements of India as a nation and for Indians as a people and also to accept responsibility to ensure that the rest of the world benefits from innovations sprouting out of India, from the UPI payments system to all other Internet innovations that we have built at scale. It is the coming of age for the Indian Internet Ecosystem. And which better year to have IndiaIGF than the year of a record number of Internet startups becoming Unicorns.

This article first appeared in India Today, https://www.indiatoday.in/opinion-columns/story/igf-in-celebration-of-the-internet-opinion-1869646-2021-10-26