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IW 04

Privatization

The internet continues to be in the hands of the yanquis

THE DIGITAL SOCIETY 'TUNISIA SUMMIT'

The newspapers reported that the World Summit on the Information Society (Tunisia, November 16) was to be nothing less than a final battle for control of the Internet. “While the US demands to maintain its absolute control over the internet, alleging that it helped to create it, other countries lining up behind the European Union demanded to play a role in the government” (Clarín, 15 November). The summit was to session “under the threat that if the negotiations were to fail, there are risks that the Internet will divide and cease to function as it as up till today” (Ibid).

What is this about?

According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, the Internet “government” consists of control over four areas:

The granting of “domains” (the endings .com, .org, .edu., .gov, etc.) and the country codes (such as .ar in the case of Argentina).

The granting of twelve digit numbers (called IP) which constitute “physical addresses” in the protocol contained in every machine connected to the Internet, as an ID number.

The control over the “root servers,” enormous computers which translate requests sent by an address in the form of a name (for example, “ http://www.po.org.ar “) into a physical address of 12 digits, so that the requests which reach the indicated computer and the response (in the form of a web page to be visualized, for example) return correctly.

The control of the “technical standards to assure the interoperability of all the internet” (Clarín).

The Spanish daily El País (17 November) speaks of three positions: that of the US, of leaving everything in the hands of Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, a private organization with headquarters in California and subject to local laws, contracted by the Department of Commerce of the US in 1998; its contract, signed during the Clinton administration, is superviced by the Department of Commerce of the US and ends next September); that of China, Brazil, and India, which “proposed to take back the administration and hand it over to an international body not subject to US laws and with executive presence of the rest of the governments”; and that of the EU, which “defended maintaining Icann's technical structure, but to create a space for intervention for the other governments.”

In order to defend the continuity of its effective control over the Internet, the US sustained that it was necessary to “maintain stability,” to keep open the possibility of a high level of technical innovation, and even that it was necessary to defend the freedom of expression.

However, in the same way that hundreds of telephone companies are interconnected using diverse norms all over the planet in order for telephone services to function, the Internet could continue functioning perfectly well under a decentralized government of “root servers.” The translations could be carried out in a completely automated fashion and the traffic would flow in the same way as always. Secondly, the supposed “defenders of freedom” support a “crusade” of the “religious lobby” to prevent the publication of the “xxx” domain for pornographic (“adult”) sites (Cnet). The US Acting Assistant Secretary of Commerce, Michael Gallagher, wrote a letter to this effect to the president of the Icann, Vint Cerf.

Apart from which, in the same way that the telephone service monopoly does not reside simply in the “technical norms” but rather in the control over the means of production of that service (the enormous communication networks and access to them), the effective control over the Internet is based on the control over access to the enormous communications network (the so-called “backbones”) over which the Internet works.

Some echoed the US 'catastrophism'. Ricardo Braginski, writing in the Clarín (15 November), for example, assures that if the US does not continue to exercise a monopoly over the translation of domain names, “everything will be more confusing and slower.” And he chooses an argument to support such a statement which immediately goes against him: “It would be as if the Telefonica and Telecom networks were divided, and in order to make calls from a friend's telephone I would have to first go through a system indicating to which network the system belongs.” But... that is how things already are.. Braginski has been able to show how privatization always interferes with the operating of public utilities. And, how much worse would it be, if all the world's calls had to pass through “Ma Bell” in the US in order to make their connection? Many resources are destined at the present time, in both Argentine companies, precisely to carry out these translations on telephone lines, and nothing need be said on the question of preventing the competition from gaining access to resources which, according the current norms, should be shared (as can be testified by anyone who knows the current situation with ADSL “broad band” service, which goes over digitalized telephone lines). This chaotic situation multiplies when it comes to cell phone networks, where a text message from, let's say, CTI, may be delayed for a whole day before arriving to a network run by the other operators.

An arrangement to please everyone”

All the newspapers report that on the day after there was an arrangement which pleased everyone, avoiding the “collapse” of the network. The US was happy because... everything continued as before. “The US ambassador at the Summit, David Gross, manifested his satisfaction because 'there is nothing new in the document'” (El País). On the other hand, the UN was to be in charge of the opening of a “forum for debate in order to study Internet policies and enhance the presence of the other States in the government of same” (Ibid). But “the new body will not have no powers whatsoever” (Wired, 16 November), since “it will have no participation nor will it be able to supervise Icann operations and it replaces no existing body.” The US technical news agency Cnet News describes the forum as something so broad that “almost anyone involved in the discussions can boast victory”. The forum will be a central point in order to debate “above all, topics ranging from security in computers to crime on line to spam and other Internet abuses.” Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, “made it clear that the UN 'has no interest in controlling the Internet. The day to day should be in the hands of the technical institutions, not the political ones’” (El País). The question for the EU is if that institution should be the US Icann or the European UIT (International Union of Telecommunications). The UE considers that the agreement obliges negotiations “in the long term and among all” over the future and the “government” of the Internet.

But the lukewarm reform for the “decentralization” of the Internet, which was set aside immediately in the face of the US rejection in favor of completely meaningless “negotiations”, really reflected a dispute not purely over the Internet, but rather the growing contradictions existing between the imperialisms.

For Cnet, the following question needed to be asked: “How much of the current opposition over this issue is a result of global tensions regarding the U.S. as the world's lone superpower and involvement in Iraq?”

These conflicts arise in the context of growing Internet-based trade (the agency UPI informs that Christmas purchases through this medium for goods and services unrelated to tourism is rising 25% more than last year, for example), and the replacement of all telephone services with “voice over IP”, an alternative which would work purely over the Internet, goes without saying. Gross, actually, is a lawyer in the field of telecommunications and has been a lobbyist for Vodaphone, one of the “telephone over Internet” companies which has grown the most lately.

As far as the real democratization of the Internet, far from being capable of arising from a few “reforms” aimed at decentralization being proposed among the imperialisms, the only way would be the same which should be imposed in the case of all expensive and bad quality public utilities at the present time: their being controlled by the workers and the customers.

By Vicente Balvanera