Internet – rights, privacy and transgressions

According to many net activists and cyber experts we are currently living in ‘golden period’ of internet where the amount of intrusion by govt is limited, internet remains free of sovereign control and this freedom is making people share their ideas, creativity like never before.

However there are dark clouds gathering on horizon of free net. This has been underlined by growing capability of govt, security agencies to hack into and listen, collate and analyze their citizens private lives. Hence revelations of Edward Snowden were startling for general public on the massive capability of the govt in creating apparatus to supervise and snoop on internet for the sake of national security.

A report on “Freedom on the Net”, released by Freedom House, the U.S.-based, government-funded organisation, points to the overall decline in internet freedom following a country-wise analysis of 65 nation-states. Freedom House’s reports in the past have been subjected to criticism for its perceived “bias” towards the U.S. and regimes friendly to it. But the “Freedom on the Net” report is fairly comprehensive in its categorisation of online freedom and curbs on it through different mechanisms adopted by nation-states.

As of today, the Internet is controlled predominantly by the U.S. Their technological and military concerns heavily influence Internet governance policy.

Unfortunately, the Brazil Netmundial convened in April, 2014, with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), following objections raised by [Brazilian] President Dilma Rousseff to the National Security Agency (NSA) spying on her government, only handed us a non-binding agreement on surveillance and privacy-related concerns.

  • Demand for an Internet bill of rights is growing loud.
    • This will have to lay out what Internet can and cannot do.
    • Key government actors must sign the agreement making it binding on them.
    • The main issue pertaining to technological dominance and thereby control of the  network itself has to be challenged and a bill of rights must aim to address these concerns.

US dominance and challenges to the structure

  • Today, China and Russia are capable of challenging U.S. dominance. Despite being a strong commercial power, China has not deployed Internet technology across the world. The Chinese have good infrastructure but they use U.S. Domain Naming System, which is a basic component of the functioning of the Internet. One good thing is because they use the Chinese language for domain registration, it limits access to outsiders in some way.
  • India too is a big country. It helps that it is not an authoritarian country and has many languages. It should make the most of its regional languages, but with regard to technology itself, India has to tread more carefully in developing independent capabilities in this area.
  • As far as European countries are concerned, they are mostly allies of the U.S. and may not have a strong inclination to develop independent capabilities in this area. Africa again has potential; it can establish its own independent Internet network which will be patronised by its burgeoning middle classes.

Intrusion capability of govt and freedom of speech on net

Countries, irrespective of developed or developing status, are adopting more and more invasive means of censoring content, including techniques such as disruption of information networks and intrusive surveillance of the internet. These were self-evident from the revelations by the U.S.  whistleblower Edward Snowden, who pointed to the expansive surveillance by the U.S. National Security Agency. While the revelations raised awareness about the use of dragnet surveillance by the world’s leading powers, they have not resulted in substantive curbs on the practice.

Legislation protecting digital privacy

The U.S. recently passed a law that provided some limits on call-records monitoring and added some checks on wire-tapping and other means of surveillance, but did not go far enough to curb the dragnet surveillance by the NSA. This has worldwide implications as the domain naming system and root servers are still largely controlled by agencies of the U.S. government. Fourteen of the 65 countries surveyed by Freedom House have passed laws to expand surveillance on their own citizens. UK has recently passed bill which allows its intelligence agencies to collect meta data of users browsing history and not entire history, and warrants needs to obtained for cyber searches from Home secretary.  The government will not ban encryption, or require tech companies to build “back doors” into encrypted data: something presented as a concession in the bill, but which had in fact already been given up as either impossible or unsafe

Beyond surveillance, other forms of content takedowns and artificial “firewalls” have also hampered freedom of expression on the internet here Chinese govt  rules the roost building one of the most sophisticated network of firewalls.

ICANN

ICANN  is  the  Internet  Corporation  for  Assigned Names and Numbers tasked with the responsibility for Internet  Protocol  (IP)  address  space  allocation, protocol  identifier  assignment,  generic  (gTLD)  and country  code  (ccTLD)  top-level  domain  name  system management,  and root server system management functions. More generically, ICANN is responsible for managing  the  assignment  of  domain  names  and  IP addresses.

ICANN’s  structure  is  a  unique  mix  of  being  a  public  nonprofit  company  registered  as  a  501(c)  (3)  charity and  also  referred  to  as  a  multistakeholder  organization   managed  by  an  international  Board  of Directors, consisting of sixteen voting members and five  non-voting  liaisons.  Three  supporting organizations  namely  the  Address  Supporting Organization  (ASO),  Generic  Names  Supporting Organization  (GNSO)  and  Country  Code  Names Supporting  Organisation  (ccNSO), each  select  two  of the  voting  Board  Members,  the  “nominating committee”  selects  eight  directors,  the  at-large community  selects  one  director  and  ICANN’s  CEO also  votes  on  its  board.

Way forward

Developing independent networks will take time, but to address the issue of dominance in the immediate future we must first address the monopoly enjoyed by ICANN, which functions more or less as a proxy of the U.S. government.

  • The ICANN Domain Naming System (DNS) is operated by VeriSign, a U.S. government contractor.
  • Thus, traffic is monitored by the NSA, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) can seize user sites or domains anywhere in the world if they are hosted by U.S. companies or subsidiaries.
  • ICANN needs to have an independent oversight body. The process for creating a new body could be primed by a coalition of states and other organisations placing one or several calls for proposals. Evaluation, shortlist, and hopefully selection, would follow.
  • S. government is adamant on controlling the ICANN DNS.
  • Thus, copies (mirrors) should be made available in other countries out of reach from the FBI. A German organisation Open Root Server Network is, at present, operating such a service. To make use of it, users have to modify the DNS addresses in their Internet access device. That is all, usage is free

Internet governance” is too abstract for most people and governments to be interested in. The most crucial question is what kind of society do you want to live in? Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations? The revelations by NSA contractor Edward Snowden have proved beyond doubt that user data held by Internet companies today are subject to pervasive surveillance. Conducting these intrusive activities by controlling the core infrastructure of the Internet without obtaining the consent of citizen users is a big concern and should be debated in public. Therefore, debates about Internet governance are no longer alien; they involve all of us who are part of the network.

Indian Policy approach

In  the arena  of  cyber  security, India  has  already  committed  itself  to  bilaterals  with countries  like  the  US,  UK,  Australia  and  Japan,  and seems to have a keen focus on beefing up cyber security to protect both its critical infrastructure as well as its IT industry  and  service  sector.  The  same  was  revealed  in last  year’s  National  Cyber  Security  Policy  2013,  which also  aimed  to  train  about  500,000  cyber  security experts  over  the  ensuing  five  years.  However,  India’s official  policy  towards  cyber  governance,  on  the  other hand, has been difficult to read.

India is not comfortable  with  the  current  Western-dominated structure  of  internet  governance,  especially  given  the fact  that  the  West  seeks  to  encourage  commercial interests  by  keeping  the  internet  a  free  trade  zone, while developing countries like India are still struggling  with baser questions of access and inclusion.

  • India is keen to retain a system that is government-led and not market-led.
  • Members  of  the BRICS  grouping  are  also  in  the  same  boat  as  India –they do not align themselves completely with the multistakeholder  internet  governance  structures  the  West promotes.
  • China, quite famously, has strongly indicated that it believes in the internet being subject to its national law
  • China would look to build an international consensus on this idea, especially “defining cyberspace boundaries and rules of conduct
  • South  Africa  had  also  put  its  weight  behind  a government-led  internet  governance  system  in  2011, after an India-Brazil-South Africa (IBSA) meeting. This proposal,  tabled  by  India  at  the  UN,  had  signalled  a move  away  from  multi-stakeholder  platforms  like  the ICANN  and  IGF  to  an  UN-led system.

United Nations  Committee for Internet Related Policies (CIRP) was to be a 50 member body –based  on  geographical  representation –that would meet  for  two  working  weeks  in  Geneva  to  discuss internet  issues,  and  would  take  inputs  from  Advisory Groups  through  the  year.

References <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/us-monopoly-over-internet-must-go-says-louis-pouzin/article6370399.ece?homepage=true>, <http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/editorial-bumps-on-the-superhighway/article7838512.ece>, <http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21677611-new-surveillance-bill-extends-powers-spies-mi5-love>

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