Who Controls The Internet?

Longish post……

I am not sure how many people are aware of a current war going on between the United States and the rest of the world. This battle started with an innocuous announcement by the US administration sometime in June and the rest of the world (in conjunction with the UN) took up arms and the fight continues to this day.

The battle is pretty straight forward : Who Controls The Internet?

What, you ask? What do you mean “who controls the internet”? Internet is not in anyone’s control. It’s a virtual global space which no one can disrupt. It’s a virtual global space that cannot be brought down (even though individual sites can but surely not The Internet). It’s virtual adecentralised zone and, therefore, untouchable.

Ok, my friend. You need to sit down for this.

The truth is that the internet is altogether a controllable entity. It can be attacked, it can be closed, it can be severed and it can be disrupted….. catastrophically. And do you know what else? Some of these scenarios have actually happened to the internet in the recent years. That,is the truth.

So what exactly is the internet?

Imagine a tree. A root, a trunk, branches, twigs, leaves and buds.

Now…..Invert It. That’s what an internet is.

So, you and I are the buds and the leaves, connected to the twigs (Internet Service Providers, which in my case is Sympatico); The branches (higher lever computers which helps others in uniquely identifying Sympatico and me); Trunk (higher level computers which helps others in uniquely identifying Canada, Sympatico and me); And the root (which helps others in uniquely identifying everything at the bottom).

To identify one bud from another we are assigned a unique identifier called Internet Protocol address and the higher level computers then use these IP addresses to keep a track of who we are. No two computers or sites can have the same IP address. It would cause a traffic disruption. The way this number is designed it is possible for the internet to have 4 billion uniqueaddresses. That number is now on the horizon and needs to be changed but that’s another post.

So, what happens when a person in Cambodia types out www.anuragsharma.com To uniquely identify this site, I have been assigned an IP address by the Verio Horizon company. That IP address is matched to the name that the individual in Cambodia has typed and his browser is directed to my site and the pages are downloaded to his computer for his reading pleasure. That’s the key, the site name (called a domainname) is matched to the assigned IP address. How does it work?

The moment the individual types out the site name, the first place that his computer is directed to is the ROOT server. This is the server that is donated by a ‘.’ at the end of the site name. You may not type it, but it’s always there. His computer sends a request to this ROOT server for Top Level Domain servers (TLDs, actually called Generic TLDs) which will direct his computer to the .com server. The .com TLD server will then be requested for anuragsharma which has been registered by Verio Horizon and here the name and the assigned IP address are matched. This IP address is sent to the individual’s computer which then makes the connection to the actual site on freeservers.com for downloading the pages from anuragsharma.com

An email is sent in a similar way, chatting is started in a similar way and so on. So the entire edifice that the internet rests on is this matching of name to the IP address. And where does it all start…..that’s right. At the ROOT server.

The ROOT server concept started in the 70s when the need for computers to talk to each other had just started. And the way the internet was built, it was determined that there is an actual requirement of only 13 ROOT servers.

That’s right ladies and gentlemen, there are 13 servers that run the internet. These servers are called A, B, C, D….. to …..M.

Why 13? Here’s where it gets a little difficult to explain. A single domain name (like anuragsharma.com) reply from the TLDs and ROOT servers can be only 512 bytes long and 13 servers are more than enough to perform the translation. Again this is the result of the way the
internet was implemented back in the 70s.

So we have finally arrived at the reason of the war that’s going on out there. Out of the 13 ROOT servers, 10 are in the US, 2 in Europe and 1 in Asia. The 10 ROOT servers in the US essentially form the backbone of the internet. They are key to the whole game and till 1998, it was US (professors, programmers, technicians etc.) who were calling the shots.

Because of the liberal culture among these professionals and technicians, it was easy to manage the Internet. But as the Internet got more and more useful, the bureaucrats and the politicians came to the party as well. Now the internet is viewed as a strategic tool which is essential to most, if not all, the governments and private corporations around the world. These governmental and non-governmental institutions started to point this to the US and wanted to pass the control of these ROOT servers to an NGO institution or to the UN IT department as they view US as a belligerent country. The point was pressed again and again to the point where various countries and corporations pushed the US into giving up control of the ROOT servers.

To avoid a tenacious situation, the US (Clinton) administration, set up an international organisation called Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) to take over the activities of these ROOT servers. The organisation would have the US retaining the oversight controls with various delegates from different countries and private corporations forming a committee. On paper this was a pretty good deal with US to give the committee more and more control over the operations. But in reality, US was the overlord and the committee completely toothless.

Now the situation, which could have been saved, is driven to a dangerous political battle because on June 2005, the US (Bush) administration essentially said “Screw you. ICANN is under US control and that’s how it will stay”. This is the point where the US can obliterate ‘.rn’ addresses from the ROOT servers because they are at war with Iran. This is point where the internet can be brought to a halt because the US switches off the backbone.

Where do I stand in this? I am with the US.

Not for the reasons that US is probably retaining the controls of ICANN. But because we need the US to keep leading the rest of the world as far as the internet is concerned. The rest of the world cannot offer the judicial, legal and innovative control that the US can. Sure, morally the rest of the world has a say in the matter, but Nigeria and Zimbabwe (two countries leading the fight for control of ICANN) are hardly the countries to have on board a committee for a say in running of the internet. Moreover, theoretically, the US can hamper running of the internet and may even cripple it. But it cannot bring it down. E.g. India now has 3 mirror sites for the F-, K- and I- ROOT servers for the country code Top Level Domain. This helps not only in managing traffic (there by reducing heavy costs) but also in case of a crisis, the end never realises there is a problem because, the traffic can easily be diverted to other mirror sites.

So, I agree with the US stance FOR THE MOMENT. Sooner or later, the US is going to have to let other technically strong countries have a say in the matter or we will see the birth of an alternate internet which could bringit’s own set of problems.

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