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Who Controls the Internet?


The latest growth of the internet as a new communication channel has allowed individuals to connect to the world and express themselves in an unprecedented manner. There are techno-enthusiasts who believe that this in an unrestrained space with unbridled freedom of speech. It has even been observed that a recent revolution has been attributed the effect of this space of free expression. Is this really such a space with utopian unlimited dimensions of self-expression? Though not comprehensive, here is an attempt to understand and give an alternative view of this controlled space.

A popular persistent perspective is the fact that one can access information about anything over the internet.  This is prevalent from the net-savvy people where they refer the internet for any required information, from directions to prescriptions. It has to be noted that the user is interested in the required information and not the source from which the information is derived. Instead of accessing information via the URI the relevant information is searched through popular search engines. As these become the gateway for the information, controlling them effectively controls the information access. The best example of this kind of control is found in China. There is actually list of blacklisted keywords using which a search cannot be done in the People’s Republic of China. All the search engines have to comply with these rules else they will be blocked from functioning inside the limits of that country. China also has a list of blocked sites and search engines avoid results from these websites. Google, for example, has one of its indexing servers placed inside China and tries to access sites. The sites that are not accessible are not indexed for Chinese search.

Further it is at the discretion of the search engines to rank the search results in the order which is convenient to them and hence if something is hidden in the 100th page of the search result, even if it is the most relevant accessible information, it is as good as non-existent and inaccessible. One example is that of a company website which never appeared on the top search results whatever the search keyword be and however relevant it was linked to the services provided by the company as the top positions for those keywords were paid and occupied by several other companies, however irrelevant.

Any URI has to be mapped to an IP address to locate the actual server where the website is physically hosted. This is managed by hierarchically maintained root name servers. The top-level root authority is the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which is a department operated by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) which functions under contract to the United States Department of Commerce (DOC). The Department of Commerce also provides an ongoing oversight function, whereby it verifies additions the changes made in the DNS root zone to ensure IANA complies with its policies. This structure provides the control of the internet naming to a single organization and mainly puts the control of the whole structure of the internet partially at its bidding.  This single point of control is necessary for the uniqueness of all the resources (websites) on the internationally shared internet and hence cannot be done away with easily.

A company called Sealand and HavenCo promised its clients of servers that were “physically secure from any legal action”. This was founded in 2000 which operated from Sealand, a self-declared sovereign principality that occupies a man-made former World War II defense facility located about six miles from the coast of Suffolk, southeast England. Arguing that it was not part of World Trade Organization, it claimed that it intellectual property law did not apply to them and so they had no restrictions on copyright for data hosted on their servers. Thus this mainland became a haven-land for pornography. To enforce control on such a set-up the government used the “intermediaries”.

The online transactions can be divided into three parties: source, intermediary, and target. The intermediary in the above case included the likes of the payment gateways and banks that processed the online payment transaction for these porn sites. These intermediaries were coerced and even forced not to process transactions from such illegal sites and thus throttling survival of HavenCo. So control over the internet is not only done by throttling the access through the network but also by controlling the available dependent elements of the business model followed by the rouge party. In November 2008, operations of HavenCo ceased without explanation. Surprisingly on February 18th, 2013, the Sealand Newsletter ran a brief announcement that HavenCo will be offering “new services in early 2013 to facilitate private communications and storage”. It will be interesting to see if HavenCo will accept the supremacy of international governmental control over the internet and adhere to the “World dictated” policies or try to push its own agenda in a new way and how will they be controlled this time around.

On 20th Nov, 2012, two Mumbai girls were arrested for their comments on a popular social networking site which was initiated after a complaint being received. The incident triggered a debate on the freedom of expression on social networking websites, with netizens denouncing the extreme measure taken by the cops. It has to be noted even these people are fully aware of the consequences of unrestrained speech even if it is over the internet. This has been regularly reflected in the evidences gathered in most of the terror cases where a plethora of evidence is in the form of softcopy, some of it attributed to the internet as the source. Hence even the most enthusiast person hoping to bring a revolution through blogs and comments is enough careful to say things that are considerably constitutionally correct. This psychological way of extending control over the internet by keeping a tab on the originator of the information existent in the real world than on the bits of data over the internet proclaims that one can put any information over the internet but one cannot get-away with it easily. This method is used to extend control internally within the borders of a nation and consciously or unconsciously followed by the citizens as an acceptable norm of regular behavior.

Access to sites inside a country is done through the routers which are physically present inside the borders of the nation. These become the control points for access to websites based on the policies of the nation. Hence we see internet divided among nations just like the globe divided by lines on the map. Like a person needs appropriate documents to cross borders, bits and bytes and all websites too need proper compliance to the nation’s policies to cross-over these routers to enter its borders creating a sense of bordered internet.

The bordered internet has lots of virtues along with all its vices. When a person is searching for information over the internet it becomes really helpful in providing the right information to the user if the location of the user is known. Say someone is looking for pizza outlet. By determining the location of the user a search on “pizza outlets” would give more and locally relevant information and filters out logically correct but practically useless ones. Similarly advertisements can be customized based on the location of the user determined by the router from which the page requests are coming from. Localization support can be provided like for example if a person accesses from Karnataka by default a website can render itself in Kannada. All these are the benefits of drawing borders on the visibly borderless internet.

Government intervention in the internet too has its own positive effects which are seen in many forms one of which is the support provided to online trading companies. During its initial years eBay faced several legal issues due the defaulting customers who used the company’s direct customer-to-customer business model to sell fraudulent objects, like one person sold his own soul on eBay. Many similar e-commerce websites use the national legal backbone to further their business over the internet where the customer is not physically present and hence settlement of the deal involves third-parties and sometimes even payment after delivery. The founder of eBay notes that most people are good, for the few fraudulent ones we need to regulate the complete business with appropriate laws.

The internet is not so completely a free and open space but is definitely controlled in ways that is not so very obvious. This control cannot be concluded as either being positive or negative in terms of its effects and its results. It is exactly like the government of the land: a necessary evil. In all senses with these view in mind information over the internet makes more sense in terms of its structure and what is shown or rather highlighted to a particular user.