The World Wide Web is 25 years old and it stands at a crossroads. There will be major changes in domain name administration inside the next 18 months. The US, which funds the organisation handling the domain name system, wishes to hand over control to a "multi-stakeholder" body. The revelations made by Edward Snowden about the US government snooping led to widespread outrage about surveillance, and the recent NetMundial conference in Brazil was convened as a direct consequence. A non-binding resolution there indicates that most stakeholders (nations, corporations and civil society organisations) would prefer a single multi-stakeholder body in charge. However, an influential minority, including Russia, China, Iran and India, wants "multi-lateral management" and therefore, refused to sign that resolution. The differences amount to much more than semantics. A multi-stakeholder model would maintain a seamless un-fragmented continuity of net access. The scope for secret surveillance and censorship would be reduced if that body was answerable to multiple stakeholders, rather than just the USA. This would at least partially address the concerns about spying that led to NetMundial. In the multilateral model, individual nations would control national domains and traffic between these walled gardens could be monitored and filtered. Surveillance and censorship may well become even more pervasive.
For example, say the government of India finds the content on a given website "abusive.in" objectionable. Under the current dispensation, or a successor multi-stakeholder model, domain names are assigned by one organisation and the content hosted anywhere. India can only block access to "abusive.in" for surfers within the Indian telecommunications system. It cannot delete the website's name. The content remains visible to anyone surfing from outside India, or anyone savvy enough to evade blocks. Under a "multilateral" system, India would control the ".in" domain and it could expunge an offensive website. It could insist that all ".in" content be placed on servers located in India, tightening surveillance and perhaps, making content providers and service providers criminally liable. It could insist that surfers in India should seek permission - apply for a "virtual passport" - to be allowed to surf other national domains.
India's cyberlaws and surveillance facilities are fairly strict and it has no privacy law protecting citizens against snooping. The laws in several of the other nations, which prefer a multilateral dispensation, are even more chilling. At least 40 nations indulge in major league censorship and surveillance and a multi-lateral model could make this even more pervasive. It would also break the Net into multiple fragmented national domains. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is the organisation that maintains the net's domain name system. It is a non-profit organisation funded by the US Department of Commerce. The contract to run the system will end on September 30, 2015, which is when the US would like to hand over supervision. By then, there will have to be some agreement on the successor system. The US has categorically refused to hand over supervision to a multilateral, or inter-governmental system. A way around this impasse will have to be found within the deadline.
The internet has run for 25 years on HTML (HyperText Markup Language), URI (Uniform Resource Identifier) and HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol). Those technologies were developed and launched by CERN in 1989. ICANN has done a splendid job of managing the population explosion in cyberspace. An estimated 2.7 billion people - about a third of the world's population - now use the internet. But this means over four billion don't. The digital divide must be bridged and digital penetration increased, while maintaining due regard for the rights of all stakeholders.