Interview with Louis Pouzin, a pioneer of the Internet and recipient of the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, the highest civilian decoration of the French government
[First published in The Hindu dated September 2014]
Louis Pouzin is recognised for his contributions to the protocols that make up the fundamental architecture of the Internet. Most of his career has been devoted to the design and implementation of computer systems, most notably the CYCLADES computer network and its datagram-based packet-switching network, a model later adopted by the Internet as Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol (IP). Apart from the Chevalier of Légion d’Honneur, Mr. Pouzin, 83, was the lone Frenchman among American awardees of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, given to the inventors of Internet technology in its inaugural year, 2013.
Ahead of the ninth annual meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) from September 2-5 in Istanbul, Mr. Pouzin shared his concerns regarding the monopoly enjoyed by the U.S. government and American corporations over the Internet and the need for democratising what is essentially a global commons. Excerpts from an interview, over Skype, with Vidya Venkat.
What are the key concerns you would be discussing at the IGF?
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. So the 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.
What is the way forward if the U.S. dominance has to be challenged?
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.
So you are saying that countries should have their own independent Internet networks rather than be part of one mega global network?
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. If a selection for the independent body could be worked out by September 2015, it would be well in time for the contract termination of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) with the U.S. government.
Fragmentation of the Internet is not such a bad thing as it is often made out to be. The bone of contention here is the DNS monopoly
Breaking that monopoly does not require any agreement with the U.S. government, because it is certainly contrary to the World Trade Organization’s principles. In other words, multiple roots [DNS Top Level Domains (TLD)] are not only technically feasible; they have been introduced in the Internet back in 1995, even before ICANN was created. This avenue is open to entrepreneurs and institutions for innovative services tailored to user needs, specially those users unable to afford the extravagant fees raked in by ICANN. The deployment of independent roots creates competition and contributes to reining in devious practices in the domain name market.
The U.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.
But would this process not result in the fragmentation of the Internet?
Fragmentation of the Internet is not such a bad thing as it is often made out to be. The bone of contention here is the DNS monopoly.
On August 28, nearly 12 millions Internet users subscribing to Time Warner’s cable broadband lost connectivity due to a sudden outage in one day. In a world of fragmented Internet networks, such mass outages become potentially impossible. The need of the hour is to work out of the current trap to use a more interoperable system.
In this context, a usual scarecrow brandished by the U.S. government is fragmentation, or Balkanisation, of the Internet. All monopolies resort to similar arguments whenever their turf is threatened by a looming competition. Furthermore, the proprietary naming and unstable service definitions specific to the likes of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and more, have already divided the Internet in as many closed and incompatible internets of captive users.
Recently, the Indian External Affairs Minister had objected to U.S. spying on the Bharatiya Janata Party. Can governments like India use a forum like IGF to raise concerns relating to surveillance?
Even if governments do attend IGF, they do not come with a mandate. A major problem with the Internet governance space today is that they are under the dominance of corporate lobbies. So it is a bit hard to say what could be achieved by government participation in the IGF. This is a problem of the IGF: it has no budget or secretary general, it is designed to have no influence and to maintain the status quo. That is why you have a parallel Internet Ungovernance Forum which is not allying with the existing structure and putting forth all the issues they want to change. Indian citizens could participate in this forum to raise privacy and surveillance-related concerns.
Do you feel Internet governance is still a very alien subject for most governments and people to engage with?
Unfortunately, the phrase “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.