Keep internet free and open

It transcends boundaries, is country agnostic and is not owned by any one corporation or country. Let it remain so. No entity should be allowed to control its use or user

david-appasamy

David Appasamy | January 19, 2015



The internet today is used by 3 billion people, or roughly 40 percent of the world’s population. While it was used by less than 1 percent of the world’s population in 1995, the first billion was reached in 2005, the second in 2010, and the third billion in 2014. And it has been growing consistently at 8-10 percent over the last two years.

Many countries have understood the potential of internet to be an economic accelerator in fostering innovation and creating jobs. It has been estimated that every 10 percent growth in broadband penetration can add 1 percent to a country’s GDP growth. Nielson estimates that global e-commerce retail sales – growing at 20 percent every year – will reach $1.5 trillion soon, more than the size of India’s economy.

The internet transcends boundaries, is country agnostic and is not owned by any one corporation or country. It is, for want of a better term, a ‘cloud’, into which individuals, companies and countries can plug to fulfil their objectives for communications, commerce, community or content.

Its power lies in the fact that it is open to everyone and not controlled by anyone. This is why it is able to foster innovation, disrupt business models, create jobs, empower individuals and encourage commerce cost effectively. The internet today is a global resource that needs to be fostered, encouraged and developed to benefit all of humanity.

The Internet Society was formed in 1992 by Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn, two of the founders of the internet as we know it, with its mission: “The internet is for everyone.” This is significant, as it houses the internet engineering task force (IETF) that oversees the engineering that underpins the internet, the internet architecture board (IAB), the internet engineering steering group (IESG) and the internet research task force (IRTF). Its purpose is ‘to promote the open development, evolution and use of the internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world’. As such, it is a leading participant in internet governance discussions, including the world summit on the information society (WSIS) and the internet governance forum (IGF).

Internet governance quandary

As the internet scales, and the full significance of what it can offer individuals, nations and corporations is understood, it is under threat in various ways. Global bodies want to control and regulate it for their own purposes, not understanding that the moment they do, they will kill the very reasons for its growth and proliferation. Governments want to curtail it to prevent the spread of information which could lead to their downfall. And corporations that provide access to it want it regulated so they can profit from it.

How then do we approach internet governance? For that, we need to understand what the internet is: a space that is available over all available networks without boundaries. The cost of bandwidth worldwide is falling steeply as network operators add humungous undersea optic fibre cable capacity that is ‘lit’ to enable the ever increasing flow of data through them. Today all international phone calls also flow through them as VoIP calls that then get reconverted into regular telecom calls at the destination network. Access is the ultimate utility service based on very high volumes with very low margins.

So no government or country has jurisdiction over it. But as a global resource it matters to every individual, company and country, and hence the felt need to govern for the good of all. In truth, the people who own it are the users, all 3 billion of them, whether individuals, companies or governments. How do we ensure equal representation for all to ensure that internet governance continues to ensure access for all? This was the main point of deliberation at the WSIS in Tunis in November 2005. To enable equal representation and inclusive deliberations on internet governance, the IGF process was initiated by the United Nations (UN) under secretary general Kofi Annan in July 2006.

The IGF is a multi-stakeholder forum for policy dialogue on issues of internet governance, bringing together all stakeholders in an inclusive process. They represent governments, the private sector, civil society, the technical community and academia on an equal basis and through an open and inclusive process.

The establishment of the IGF was formally announced by the UN secretary-general in July 2006. It was first convened in October–November 2006 and has held an annual meeting since then. The IGF represents the best platform for internet governance, especially today with many players trying to seize the initiative and control the process.

The recent Net Mundial initiative of the internet corporation for assigned names and numbers (ICANN) was one such. Earlier, the international telecommunications union (ITU) had tried to seize the initiative driven by governments through their incumbent telcos who originally formed the ITU and who still dominate it.

Another example of working to the detriment of what the internet can deliver is the recent attempt by Airtel to control what people access over it to increase profits.  There must be a clear distinction between telecom services and internet access to prevent such attempts, with the principle of net neutrality adhered to.

Once a telecom company provides internet access over a data pack, they are deemed to be an ISP providing data access. What the user does with the data access paid for is up to them. All attempts to profit by controlling the flow of applications and data must be prevented so that India has an open internet.

A free and open internet is so vital for growth and development that president Barack Obama has made a statement asking the federal communications commission (FCC) for the strongest possible rules on net neutrality.

“An open internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known,” Obama said.

“Net neutrality has been built into the fabric of the internet since its creation – but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted. We cannot allow internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas. That is why today, I am asking the FCC to answer the call of almost 4 million public comments, and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality,” Obama said in a press release.

In the same way, internet governance must stay focused on the opportunity it offers people and countries of the world: to enable access for everyone and empower them for a better quality of life.

This can only be through a multi-stakeholder process such as the IGF at the global level, which enables checks and balances so that none of the stakeholders dominate or control the process to profit from it to the detriment of the larger purpose. This must be mirrored in India to facilitate its growth and proliferation for the benefit of all. Otherwise, the prime minister’s call for Digital India will die before it is given a chance.

The article appeared in January 16-31, 2015, issue

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