Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?

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
French computer scientist Louis Pouzin. Photo: Wikimedia

[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.

Continue reading “Should governments allow citizens to end up as guinea pigs for global Internet corporations?”

What a Himalayan trek taught me about perseverance

The Bhagirathi emerging from the Himalayas. As seen at Gangotri National Park. Photo: VIDYA VENKAT

[First published in The Hindu, MetroPlus dated Aug 26, 2016.]

My sole climbing feat before I set out on a high-altitude trek of 14,000 feet in the Himalayas was climbing a 50-feet-tall water tank in Puducherry. And that too nine years ago. I often recollected, with an odd mix of amusement and shame, how my knees got wobblier as I ascended the rusty rungs of the tank’s metal ladder, thanks to bouts of intense acrophobia… That is why, when folks at home greeted my brave decision to scale the Himalayas with stares of disbelief, it did not seem out of place.

And then there was the gruelling fitness regimen to boot…

An online group for aspiring trekkers recommended an hour’s exercise every day, which included both cardio and strength training, for a minimum of three months. “You think you can do that?” my mother asked, glancing furtively at the muffin top that I have been trying to get rid of for over two years now…

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Farm laws’ repeal: In India, democracy isn’t dead

Farmers gesture as they block a national highway during a protest against farm bills passed by India’s parliament, in Shambhu in the northern state of Punjab, India, September 25, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

Friday’s announcement on repealing the new farm laws in India affirms how no government, irrespective of the strength of its mandate, can afford to disregard voices of people emerging from the ground.

Vidya Venkat

[First published in The Wire on November 20, 2021.]

Narendra Modi’s announcement on Friday repealing the three new farm laws is proof that democracy is still alive and kicking in India. The laws had resulted in widespread protests from farmers congregating on the borders of the national capital since August 2020. The decision, which comes a few months before the state assembly elections due in the ‘grain bowl’ state of Punjab and the politically significant Uttar Pradesh, is proof that sustained public pressure on policy issues cannot be ignored by any government notwithstanding its might in Parliament.

Commentators on Indian politics have expressed fears that the country’s democratic credentials are slowly eroding ever since the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party formed a majority government and returned with a stronger mandate in 2019. The fear is not misplaced as the government has demonstrated high-handed tactics in its handling  of the farmer protests and other such acts critical of the government, to suppress dissent. The framing of sedition charges against journalists reporting the farmer’s protests on January 26 via social media, on a day when, ironically, the nation was celebrating its founding as a democratic republic was perhaps a particularly low point during the struggle. Hundreds of farmers also lost their lives while braving rough conditions.

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Unicorn and the stars

Artwork by my nephew Aniruddha (7)

What is the distance between the earth and the stars?”

My five-year-old nephew asks, wide-eyed.

The rocking horse in his bedtime story book

Summons a unicorn and goes wherever it wishes.

I want to ride on that horse and get to the stars.

I want to ask amma why she went away so far…

[When my sister passed away in February, I told my nephews that she is a star now.]