Science

The World Needs Time to Debate Plan to End US Control of the Internet

Credit: Thierry Ehrmann, CC BY 2.0

Credit: Thierry Ehrmann, CC BY 2.0

The internet is a vast network of interconnected computers identified through their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. On the internet, websites can be accessed only when their domain names are translated into their corresponding IP addresses. This process, called “domain name resolution”, is critical to the functioning of the internet. The Domain Name System (DNS) consists of three key technical operations: the numbers function, the naming function and the protocol function. The numbers and naming function refer to the allocation of IP addresses and domain names respectively. Theoretically, there exist around 4 billion Internet Protocol Version 4 (IPv4) addresses, and they are fast running out.

The system of allocation of IPv4 addresses initially followed a first-come, first-served system that overlooked the needs of developing economies. Indeed, until the beginning of the last decade, all of China had fewer IP addresses than Stanford University!

The protocol function refers to the protocol parameters standardisation process. Collectively, they are known as the Internet Assigned Names Authority (IANA) functions. Until 1999, the IANA functions were performed by a single individual: the computer scientist Jon Postel. Since then, the IANA functions have been discharged by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) under a contract with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) of the US Department of Commerce. The NTIA exercises oversight of the IANA functions. The development of protocol standards – such as the development of IPv6 addresses, which are greater in number and will replace IPv4 – is the remit of the International Engineering Task Force (IETF), an independent and open standards-setting community.

Management change

In March 2014, however, the NTIA announced its plan to transfer its oversight functions to a “global multistakeholder community”. Subsequently, an IANA Stewardship Transition Coordination Group (ICG) was formed that would review and consolidate suggestions for making this transition work. Recently, the ICG released its draft transition proposal and opened it for public comments till September 8, 2015. The final IANA transition proposal is thus on the table now. The transition was supposed to be completed by September 30, 2015, which is also the date when ICANN’s contract with NTIA expires. In light of the additional time required to implement the transition process, however, the NTIA has now extended ICANN’s contract by a year, pushing back the transition process.

The public comments period remains the most direct route for developing countries and diverse communities to get their point-of-view across. A September 8 deadline will make this very difficult.

Despite this extension, however, there has been no modification to the September 8 deadline for submitting public comments. The IANA transition has been hailed as a multistakeholder process with the involvement of many important internet communities. Two cross-community working groups (CCWG) were created for the purpose: a CCWG that would propose how and to whom the IANA functions should be handed over, and another group that would examine proposals needed to make ICANN’s management accountable to the larger community of internet users and businesses. Both groups have turned in their respective submissions. A separate group of Regional Internet Registries which allot IP addresses also submitted a proposal regarding the IANA numbers function. The ICG’s public comments period – to respond to this complex trifecta of proposals – is therefore one of the most important opportunities for stakeholder groups to influence the global internet governance debate.

India’s stakes in process

The importance of public participation in the transition process cannot be stressed enough. The NTIA had envisioned the transition to have broad community support and serve to enhance the multistakeholder model. Another objective of the transition was to meet the needs and expectations of the global customers and partners of the IANA services. One of the key responsibilities of the ICG was to maintain a public record for the NTIA on how the three group submissions tie together to meet all the criteria set out by the NTIA. This record, at the end of the day, will reveal how developing countries have participated in this exercise. In order for US control over internet governance to be sufficiently decentralised, many of the formerly under-represented countries will need to come to the fore at this crucial juncture.

India is a key player in cyber-politics. Compared to its geographical counterparts, India enjoys two distinct advantages: The size of its internet user base and English as the preferred language for online communication. In addition to its inherent advantages, India, for all intents and purposes, ensured a seat at the internet governance high table by throwing its weight behind multistakeholderism at the ICANN53 meeting in Argentina this June. The emergence of India as the next important cyber power bodes well for the multistakeholder model. Many have expressed concern that despite the US government espousing multistakeholderism, the internet is far from free of US influence. Many believe that even without the active support of the US government, the country’s businesses and civil society will promote US cyber interests at the cost of others. However, even if this concern is legitimate, the problem is not insurmountable.

United South Asian stand required

One way of countering Pacific supremacy over the internet is by putting forth a unified South Asian position on internet governance. This will make the debates more representative and at the same time help formulate practical solutions. India will, no doubt, need to assume a leadership role in enabling other neighbouring countries to facilitate this debate. The US government must recognise this unique role and provide all necessary assistance to India in this regard. India’s changed internet governance stand in favour of multistakeholderism is a great opportunity for the US to strike partnerships that will further the multistakeholder model. It will help ensure that no geographical region or country is unfairly represented in the global debate.

The ICG transition proposal notes that the naming community has called for the creation of a separate legal entity (a Post Transition IANA or PTI) to serve as the new IANA functions operator. The structure of this proposed entity is not fully fleshed out as yet. The PTI is envisaged as a skeletal affiliate of ICANN, with just enough staff to manage its functions. However, it would be advisable for the global internet community to structure this entity in a manner that ensures representation from hitherto underrepresented communities and nations. All of this, though, is only possible if diverse communities are able to voice a coherent vision for the future and a demand for representation. To that end, the public comments period remains the most direct route of getting the point across. A September 8 deadline will make this very difficult.

Bedavyasa Mohanty is a lawyer with an interest in privacy and technology who works at the Observer Research Foundation’s Cyber Initiative