patrice on Sat, 16 Apr 2005 14:20:10 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Arun Mehta: Unpacking Internet Governance

A view from New Delhi. Original to the Asiasource mailing list. Fwded
with the author's permission.

my $0.02 on the subject of Internet governance, your contribution
solicited at

    Unpacking Internet Governance -- And Finding Red Herrings

Arun Mehta,

The Internet seemed to come out of nowhere. Governments didn't plan
it, international institutions hadn't even discussed it, and industry
largely also didn't expect it. Most remarkable in its growth, was
the  seeming absence of governance of any kind. The US government
certainly  wasn't in charge, except for some minor areas, like
domain names. Other governments, conservative to different degrees, were
horrified to discover a lack of content control that they could do
almost nothing about. The telecom companies, which carried the traffic,
were too busy selling bandwidth at growth rates of 500% per annum, to
worry that here, for the first time, significant technological
innovation in telecommunications happened outside their control, and
even without  their significant involvement. The ITU first learnt of
the power of the Internet, when its X.400 email standard was summarily
rejected. Now, Wi-Fi, a wireless Internet, you might say, is seriously
undermining Bluetooth and 3G, both technologies in which the ITU and
telecom companies have made huge investments. Once, the ITU ruled
telecom:  progress took place at the rate at which lawyers in Geneva
could hammer  out agreements.  For governments, telecom companies and
the ITU, the  situation now is akin to that of a leader of the French
Revolution, who,  looking out of the window, said, "There go my
people. I better find out  where they are going, so I can lead them

The Internet has not only managed furious numeric growth rate with
hardly a hitch, it has exhibited rapid technological progress as well.
E-mail, chat, the web, e-commerce, file sharing, are just some of the
innovations that we have seen in the last two decades, and each have
had  profound impact. Once, the postman was a much-awaited daily
visitor, now  who uses paper and envelopes to send letters? The
publishing industry  once published vast quantities of glossy pamplets
to distribute at exhibitions. Now, few people bother to even visit, let
alone pick up the "raddi". While e-commerce is transforming the way
business is done inindustry after industry, file sharing in perceived
as a serious threat by the huge entertainment industries. And
technological progress on the Internet is showing no signs of slowing
down. RSS (Rich Site Summary)  has made it far more attractive to keep
track of news electronically,  rather than to peruse several paper
newspapers and magazines.

Perhaps the most remarkable attribute of the Internet, is that nobody
seems to know who runs it. Our only experience of authority is our
Internet Service Provider, who may be lazy, and maintain poor service
levels and security, or authoritarian and prevent access to certain
services. But most people do not perceive the ISP to be a serious
problem, and if they do, they usually can switch to a better one. But
other than the limited role that the ISP plays, who governs the

That most people are completely stumped when asked this question,
indicates, according to me, how well the Internet is run, and cheaply at
that. The governments and international bodies seeking to take charge of
the Internet would do well to learn from the model of governance that
the Internet practices, instead of seeking to enforce their obsolete
models of centralized control and command. If it ain't broken, don't
fix  it.

    Problems of the Internet

This is not to suggest that the Internet doesn't have problems: 1.
Poorcountries pay for traffic in both directions, when connecting to
rich countries like the US. 2. We all receive far too much junk mail, or
spam.  3. There are too many viruses and worms floating around the

That the ITU has not been able to sort out problem 1, is an indication
of how little the genuine problems of the Internet seem to matter to
the ITU: asymmetric bandwidth pricing is hardly such a big problem that
some negotiation, and the setting up of local, national and regional
bandwidth exchanges couldn't quickly take care of. Spam could easily
bebrought under control, if governments, globally, were to hold ISPs
liable for the spam emanating from their network. The same, I would
submit would work for viruses: a few fines, and ISPs would quickly
tighten their security. There could be a couple more genuine problems
that don't occur to me at the moment, but other than that, we have a
bunch of red herrings.

    The Red Herrings

Foremost among them, is the whole discussion of domain names, and who
should control them. Internet traffic is routed using IP addresses,
similar to phone numbers on the telecom network. People came up with the
clever idea of allowing people to use groups of alphanumerical
characters instead of these large numbers, with computers automatically
making the conversion. Such a big deal should not be made about who uses
which name to represent a specific IP address, and frankly, most of us
don't care. We just use google to find whichever company or individual
we are looking for.

Many issues being brought into the Internet Governance discussion relate
to support for the Internet -- how different segments of society may be
helped to get onto the Internet. That is fine. It is to be welcomed if
international organisations and governments engage in this. But for
that, they do not need to be governing the Internet. Likewise,
governments see in the Internet ways of better interacting with
citizens, and becoming transparent. Again, this is welcome, but that can
be done without anyone taking over the Internet.

Governments and conservative members of society would like some curbing
of the pornography and other objectionable material on the Internet.
However, all these years we have been exposed to this uncontrolled
information, and the sky hasn't fallen on our heads. Can we not
swallowthis bitter pill, given all the benefits that the Internet
provides?  Proponents of free speech have long known that lots of
terrible content is also able to take shelter under their umbrella, but
none of us want  to sacrifice our fundamental rights because of this.

Another reason brought forward to justify the involvement of governments
and international institutions in Internet governance, is to promote a
different direction for its growth, so that it better addresses the
needs of the disenfranchized. Again, this is a red herring. The
Internet basically is nothing but a large number of computers, taking to
each other in a language called TCP-IP. This language merely allows
reliable communication between any two computers on the network. What
the two computers do with this facility, is entirely up to them, just as
you can use the telephone to talk business, or to gossip. Just because
you want to start a different kind of conversation on the phone,
doesn't mean you need to take on the phone company, particularly
when it is making no effort to censor you.

    How is the Internet governed?

My objective is not to discourage interest in Internet governance --
buthow does one get involved? Arguably the only significant governance
the Internet enjoys, is that of bodies like the Internet Engineering
Task Force. These people manage a process that ensures that the Internet
keeps acquiring new abilities at a furious pace, which leaves
policy-makers and the legal system far behind. The bureaucrats at
international decision-making bodies such as the UN must wonder how it
maintains this speed, in a process that is remarkably inclusive,
consensual, and transparent. When presented with a problem, and
conflicting suggestions for improvement, the IETF doesn't take
decisions  in favour of one approach or the other: if even after
thorough discussion, there is a difference of opinion on how a certain
objective  is to be achieved, all the variants can be tried out, without
fear of  doing any serious damage.  In characteristic modesty for an
engineering  body, the standards that the IETF encourages the Internet
to follow are  published as "Requests for Comment." If after some
experience with the  variants, one stands out, a new RFC, pointing
this out, supersedes the  earlier one, and the discussion moves on to
other objectives

    Gender and Internet governance.

If more women wish to get involved in Internet governance, all they need
to do, is to join the mailing lists run by the IETF and others. Of
course, to understand what is being discussed there, you need some
understanding of the technology. For your postings to be treated with
respect in such fora, you need a keen understanding of the issues, and
the willingness to spend time discussing them. My simple question is,
how many people are that interested in technology? How many people
seek  to understand the electrical wiring in the house before a problem
has arisen? As an engineer, I am resigned to the fact that most people
get glazed eyes as soon as the "t" word is mentioned.

At fora such as the IETF, women are undoubtedly underrepresented, as is
the case in most areas of technology. In the case of information and
communications technology, though, this is particularly distressing.

ICT is a new profession. It is one thing to have to deal with a gender
gap in a profession which has had a long time to build up prejudice,
quite another to see a gap build up in front of our eyes. In India,
women occupy less than 20 percent of the professional jobs (Gender,
Information Technology, and Developing Countries: An Analytic Study By
Nancy Hafkin and Nancy Taggart, United States Agency for International
Development, June 2001), and I bet the percentage falls as you go up the

Noteworthy is, that women were pioneers in this profession. Countess Ada
Lovelace was programming before the digital computer existed, when it
was just a concept put forward by her friend Charles Babbage. The
first working digital computer, Eniac, had mostly women programmers. In
other words, this is a profession in which women actually abdicated
their leadership role.

ICT is particularly important as a profession for women, because many in
developing countries have difficulty combining life in a traditional
household and bringing up children with work outside. IT would allow
them to work from home, at their convenience.

ICT professions have a good future. The industry is changing quite
rapidly, and growing furiously as well. It is highly
labour-intensive.Provided you are always willing to learn new things,
ICT skills should keep you from being unemployed.

Certainly, the question of how more women can be encouraged to work in
the ICT sector needs addressing. In the process of solving that problem,
we will surely find increased involvement of women in forums that deal
with Internet governance issues. But tinkering with the Internet before
understanding its working may be a bit like killing the goose that lays
the golden eggs.

Asiasource-l mailing list

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