TAKING STOCK: Internet: Give it wings


Unknown to most people, a key battle is under way. This fight – with its far reaching implications – is more important than many of the wars fought with guns, tanks and aircrafts.

The prize is the world’s most valuable innovation: ‘the Internet’. It is amazing how nations who played no part in starting it, had no hand in carrying it forward and even tried to block it for their people are now trying to obtain whatever control they can over it. But, is that surprising? Don’t we all want something for nothing? Governments promise us free goodies: welfare benefits in the US, free electricity to farmers in India and subsidized water from Melamchi in Nepal.

Governments want to give but as politicians and bureaucrats never part with their own wealth, they first have to get from someone else. Is it any wonder then, that governments, around the world, salivate at the thought of controlling whatever part they can of the Internet?

Ideally the Internet should remain free, out of the clutches of any government. However, since the primary Internet providers have to store their equipment somewhere and operate from somewhere, some government is going to have some control over it. The question then is — “which government should that be?”

The origin of the Internet was in the US. France too was one of the first ones to have Internet. Its government called it ‘minitel’, gave computers to everyone and controlled it tightly. The intense bureaucratic oversight and control ensured that minitel met its doom and today no one talks about it. Minitel just could not keep up with US’s private companies like Yahoo, MSN, Google, e-Bay, and Amazon, which popularised Internet the world over. Minitel died.

On one side of this battle for control over the Internet is the US. On the other side is a rag-tag of autocratic, theocratic, control minded states as headed by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Cuba and Venezuela: China too is supporting them and so shall North Korea in all probability.

Europe seems to hold the key to resolving the battle for control but is unsure of where to go. You would expect it to support US but such has been the EU’s wayward stance that it’s being cheered on by China, Cuba and Iran who are happy to see the end of US, Europe unity.

The Internet is modern age’s most important success story. Nothing in history has come close to the impact that it has had. Carl Bildt, former PM of Sweden says, “The Internet is fast becoming as important to our globalised economies and societies as water is to life. The fact that innovation, transparency and reliability have gone hand in hand in this revolution over the past decade shows at the very least that the governance structure of the Internet isn’t deeply flawed.

It would be profoundly dangerous to now set up an international mechanism, controlled by governments, to take over the running of the Internet. Not only would this play into the hands of regimes bent on limiting the freedom that the Internet can bring, it also risks stifling innovation and ultimately endangering the security of the system. In the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, there is an immediate audience for complaints about heavy-handed US efforts to retain control over everything. But it would be dangerous to let such complaints take us down the path toward handing important powers to closed regimes.” Europe should stop wavering and support the US, even if it means some powers over the Internet vest with the US government. US president Bush would certainly be better than Cuba’s Fidel Castro, a person who has in no way contributed to the Internet’s development and shouldn’t get to say a word as to how it should be run.

Carl Bildt has urged Tony Blair, Britain’s PM and Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU, to come out heavily in favour of the US, “otherwise they might endanger one of the most powerful instruments of freedom and prosperity in our time.” Nepal too should support the US. Internet should be given wings and fly uncontrolled. The writer can be contacted at: