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Opinion - News Analysis

The Internet: a case of `founders keepers?

Anand Parthasarathy

The second World Summit on the Information Society that opens in Tunis on Novem
will see a renewed effort by developing nations, with U.N. backing, to transfer `con
the Internet from the U.S. to an independent body.

THE WORD "cyber space" was coined long before the Internet was born. In fact it is
creation of American novelist William Gibson who used it in his novel Neuromancer
ten years before the World Wide Web gradually became a reality.

At the turn of the century, Gibson, asked to comment on the shape taken by his un
brainchild said perceptively: "The Internet is extra national and post geographical. I
happening largely outside the jurisdiction of politicians. It is truly one of the strange
we have done as a species. and we have done it inadvertently. If we take care of it
a step towards a better world." His instinct was right in one important aspect: the r
freedom from political control that Internet enjoyed.

Indeed its origins lay in a network called DARPANet, a creation of the U.S. governm
Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which was initially handed over to a c
of American academic institutions, then grew and grew... to become today's Interne

By late 1980s the number of Internet users and hence addresses became
unmanageable without some regulation. The U.S. Department of Commerce and th
Telecommunications Department established the Internet Assigned Numbers Autho
(IANA), which in 1998 became the Internet Corporation of Assigned Names and Nu
(ICANN), a private corporation that includes a number of stakeholders. In recent ye
ICANN has been criticised for being dominated by corporate interests in the develop
who had cornered the majority of available addresses. This is one of the reasons, n
India have been early supporters of IPv6 (Internet Protocol version six) the next Ne
which will increase the size of the address (which translate into the somethingdotco
someonedotnet name) from 32 bits (which can give at most 4.2 billion different add
128 bits that will boost the possible addresses to almost infinity. India has also stak
national claim to an Internet identity with its own ".in" suffix earlier this year.

But many developing nations have been uncomfortable with the implicit control tha
ICANN, a U.S. creation, exerts on the Internet and have been advocating a monitor
for a truly international agency possibly a U.N. arm like the International
Telecommunication Union. This was mooted at the first World Summit of the Inform
Society in Geneva, 2003, but was rather unceremoniously swept aside. It will again
Tunis this week as the single biggest issue on the agenda when the second WSIS o
November 16. Preliminary meetings held in September, saw the impasse only harde
the U.S. officially hardening its opposition to changing the status quo. Indeed some
commentators have called the U.S. posture a "Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century

"Dollar divide"

Internet governance who owns Internet may be a pressing issue for many nat
it may not be more important than other weighty issues on the WSIS agenda like
use the fruits of technology to bridge the digital divide. Here again, critics speak of
divide' the fact that the U.N. has an almost empty kitty in its efforts to leverage
technology for empowering the underprivileged. A Digital Solidarity Fund has been
fill this lacuna and the U.N. has so far raised $5.7 million from member states. Sho
related activity by corporations and profit makers be taxed to create a corpus for th
advantaged? This is just one proposal that will be aired in Tunis.

The event should see global interest focused on India for one reason at least. The c
shrewd harnessing of people's talents and energy to carve a name as a premier IT
destination is one of the success stories of the world's ongoing affair with computer

But the challenge to use such an edge to reach out to under-empowered rural millio
something that continues to challenge and provoke and there may be lessons to
from other similarly positioned developing economies.

So, as we showcase the success of Kerala's "Akshaya" e-literacy programme and Ka

"Bhoomi" project to computerise land records; as we tout the reach of Andhra Prad
Seva" citizen services and the spread of wireless-based rural telephony networks, w
do worse than listen to planners from Brazil and Egypt, Thailand and South Africa, w
their own way have shown that no divide, even a digital one, is unbridgeable, if peo
governments want to do it.

Meanwhile they will continue to ask, `who owns Internet' and recall that old school
"Finders keepers, losers weepers" except that in the case of the World Wide Web
founders rather than finders, who are hanging on to control of the modern day won
call the Internet.