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Twilight Over the Internet

December 15, 2012

I had some time back groaned about what I feared would be nightfall over the Internet, with an upper-case I. The proceedings at the Dubai conference (The World Conference on International Telecommunications, WCIT) of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) that ended yesterday certainly seems to indicate it is near twilight.

The US has had a big advantage after World War II on the technology front in communications. Whatever I think about the behaviour of its government, there are some things in its society that I greatly admire: most of all the fierce defence of the First Amendment to its constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly and religion. No doubt it is in my opinion a little bit misused, but that is far better than having a nanny state or an oligarchy of the Orwellian 1984 type. Of course it all becomes a little confusing if you look at the way life went on and goes on there. Extraordinary rendition is, or at least was, practised by the country (The European Court of Human Rights has only yesterday pronounced its verdict on the CIA). Yet pornography is permitted under the freedom of expression.

You have seen repeated instances of people going berserk with their guns in schools (but why mostly schools?). You have also seen periodic outcry against the “gun culture” there. The first in my memory was when Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968. And today, there was a person from the for-gun-lobby saying the massacre in yesterday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary may not have been so bad if only the school had a gun, and someone to use it. That someone could have shot Lanza down after he got in his first few shots. Some logic, assuming the “someone” was not the one to be shot first. It is also interesting to note that the Second Militia Act of 1792, signed by George Washington, required every able-bodied (white) male in the new republic between the ages of 18 and 45 to purchase a musket and ammunition.

I wonder why the US has been able to ensure that there is no terrorist strike after 9-11, yet has these repeated school-killings.

Let me end the digression and go back to my proposition, the US advantage in technology. Though the internet in fact descended from a computer network model in the US, Sir Timothy Berners-Lee of the UK is considered the father of the Internet, creating the World Wide Web. It is envisioned as a web, not a hierarchy of authority and control. This is what annoys States like China, Russia and Saudi Arabia, and seemingly India, of late. The ruling classes of Egypt and Syria (and others of the “Arab Spring” group) would also agree. The only “authority” on the net is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority that regulates assignment of addresses. There is heartburn that they do this under a contract with the United States Department of Commerce. (Earlier the US Defence Department gave a similar contract). Nevertheless, the authority stops with assignment of the addresses and does not look at the content of Web sites.

That is not to say that big boys do not play in the figurative night. Content filtering, looking for patterns, and similar games are played by security agencies, and the West that champions the freedom of the net has had an advantage of technology, and denying technology to others. Operating System versions that enabled complex encryption (more than 128 bits) was not permitted by the export control of the US earlier. They may have the resources also. Anecdotal evidence still suggests people have cocked a snook at the cloak-and-dagger guys using Pretty Good Privacy (PGP). Interestingly, PGP also works on a “web of trust,” with no Certificate Authority

So it seems Russia, China, Algeria and Sudan, all with doubtful credentials with respect to freedom of thought in addition to speech, wanted a say in assigning the numbers. The West begged to differ, and the move has been shelved.

The ITU was propped up as a possible controller of the internet. Such control could have warmed the hearts of policemen and politicians in Thane. The final treaty is claimed to provide for some control of the net and the Western nations (the US, the UK, Australia and Canada) have refused to sign it. I do not know what the treaty really says.

I do not trust  the powers that be in a country with policemen who can arrest a young woman after the hour of 7:00 PM and lock her up with non-bailable charges for the crime of “like”ing a facebook post, with any authority for control of the Internet, or a part of the “Web”. The problem is that they do not need the authority; arresting a woman after 7:00 PM itself is not sanctioned by any authority. So it boils down to I do not trust, period. The authority only could make it a little worse, “clothe” their actions, as a pompous lawyer may say. Only the Anonymous can protest and laugh a little bit; the BSNL site (bsnl.co.in) has been off the Web for the last two days, and is still not seen as of last count!

That is why I said I like the society of the US; Paul Begala could write about the supreme arrogance of the judiciary and in fact call a judge of the US Supreme Court a “jerk”, in a Newsweek article, without being prosecuted. (In fact, I got the information about the Second Militia Act only from this piece. Read it, the article is good for so many other reasons, too). I shudder to even think about how Article 19(a) of our constitution would hold up against the matter of “contempt”.

There was also a sinister side to the proceedings at Dubai. The official agenda had a suggestion to find ways to make the “Web” accessible to two-thirds of humanity who today have none. But there was this proposal from the European Telecommunications Network Operators’ Association (ETNO) that developing countries should establish and fund broadband networks and hand them over to them (ETNO members) to run services and make profits!

And Vint Cerf, one of the “fathers of the Internet” (other than Sir Timothy) and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google seems to have said, ahead of the WCIT, about attempts to put “governance” or control on the Web: “If delegates have their way at next week’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai, the man in charge of the Web will be a Soviet-trained apparatchik from Cold War days.”

“These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn’t figured out that they are dead yet”, he added, to my delight, “because the signal hasn’t travelled up their long necks.”

Tailpiece: Who hasn’t heard of Alan Turing? He led British research on cryptography during World War II, was a leading light of cybernetics (remember the Turing Machine and the Turing Test?) and was convicted of homosexuality, a criminal offence then in the UK. He committed suicide two years after his conviction, in 1954. Stephen Hawking is leading British scientists who want Alan Turing to be pardoned posthumously.

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