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“Globally, Internet Traffic Passes Through 13 Root Servers” (!)

The Times of India recently interviewed India’s Minister of State for Communications and IT, Sachin Pilot, on Internet Governance.

Titled “‘Internet’s governance can’t be limited to one geography’”, the article started off with an amazing assertion by the minister. Quoting from the article:

Globally, internet traffic passes through 13 root servers. Nine of them are in the US, two each in Japan and Western Europe. These servers move the information. I believe India and other countries ought to play a much more relevant role in managing traffic flows. The internet is a global resource whose governance can’t be limited to a particular geography.

What follows is a slightly paraphrased version of what I left in the comments section of that article. Yes, I’ve simplified quite a few of the concepts that are being discussed, and yes, this is rather more nuanced than either the article or my comments can cover in a few paragraphs. Anyway, here goes.

While this interview is a fairly standard restatement of the position some Governments (including India) have about governmental control of Internet Governance, it is sadly apparent that the minister unfortunately doesn’t appear to understand what the root servers are, or how they work.

Nobody’s internet traffic “passes through” root servers. They are more like a central directory for the internet, which then feeds to a complex network of other directories, and are the top level of the “DNS” (domain name system).

This system is what ensures that, for example, when you type www.mit.gov.in (the Indian ministry of IT’s website) into your browser, you are directed to the IP address, which hosts the ministry’s website.

The minister did get one thing right—that there are 13 such “root servers”, each of which has dozens of “mirrors” (exact copies) around the world. At least four of the root servers have their mirrors hosted in various Indian cities.

There is no question of “control” or “intervention” here being any sort of a good thing. Instead, it is vitally important that the entire DNS system be consistent across all countries. Or your web and mail traffic might go to some completely unintended destination.

There are serious consequences to the stability of the internet, if this directory is unilaterally modified by any country or other entity in the name of “exercising control”.

As an example in telecom terms, if you called your wife, you might instead reach a government department because they printed that on their stationery and don’t want to print new ones, so took your wife’s number.

ICANN (which is a global coordinating body for domains, www.icann.org) has its own governance mechanism which does include a Government Advisory Committee (GAC).

According to the GAC member directory, India does have a representative on the GAC, who is listed as an advisor to the Indian Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, whose junior minister (minister of state) is none other than Mr.Pilot himself. So, there is nothing I can see where India has any less, or any more, of a voice in ICANN governance processes, than any other country in the world.

One thing that ICANN is—and that India apparently doesn’t seem want (and neither do some other countries including China and Russia)—is a multistakeholder approach.

That is, government, industry (domain name registrars, ISPs etc) and civil society (NGOs) all have a voice in the ICANN process. In the UN, only Governments have a vote, while Industry and NGOs can only provide comments, and that too, if and only if they are invited.

Yes, the ICANN system tends to be characterized by a lot of debate (and possibly dysfunction) but that is a normal consequence of a process where multiple entities are involved in policy making, rather than one single person / country / organization.

Similarly, any decision taken in the UN is a subject of long drawn out debate, with differing viewpoints, even on questions much more important than the “control” of a centralized directory, questions such as whether other world powers must intervene in the long drawn out, bloody conflict currently going on in Syria—something that was finally vetoed by Russia and China.

This is a very old debate and one in which the points made by the minister have been made by some other countries over the years, and countered many times by many advocates of an open governance process.

So, it it mildly surprising to see that the deputy minister of one of the countries that has, for years, been in favor of governmental control of the Internet does not appear to clearly understand just what his ministry is so much in favor of “participating” in the control and governance of, especially where they are already participants for the past several years.

By Suresh Ramasubramanian, Antispam Operations

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