A Conversation With Fadi Chehadé

A Conversation With Fadi Chehadé

Gellman: We talked backstage about something, about the impact that the NSA disclosures had, both on your work and on you personally. Why don’t you talk a little bit about that?
Chehadé: Well, certainly the NSA revelations have changed completely the interests of the global political class in looking at who governs the Internet. I remember going to Brasilia to meet President Rousseff literally after her speech at the UN, and she told me, “I could not believe this was happening to me, and I now need to pay attention.”
Gellman: "This" being that her own phone was being surveilled, yeah.
Chehadé: This was not the case right before the revelations. You did not have the political class all focused on who’s doing what on the Internet. Frankly, I know that the president of Mexico asked his cabinet this question. Right after the revelations he said, “Who runs the Internet in Mexico?” And they said, “Well, we kind of don’t know. We don’t know who runs the Internet in Mexico. We have bandwidth, but that’s about it.” So the questions in the political class have raised the interest, and frankly I’ll sum it up in one comment I got from the vice president of a big South American country. He said, “Fadi, let me be clear. The Internet is very powerful. We like power. We’re going to take care of that.” And at least he was the straight, honest one. He was telling me exactly what the political class is thinking.
Now personally, you asked me—I grew up in a minority, in a country where freedoms were not always at hand like here.
Gellman: Lebanon under Syrian influence.
Chehadé: Lebanon under Syrian influence in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and frankly there were informants in the villages that got a lot of my own colleagues killed or tortured. I moved to the West largely because I wanted to enjoy these freedoms, and I brought my whole family here, and my parents. After the Snowden revelations personally I felt that there was a bit of a betrayal, that the ideals we all came to enjoy here were being betrayed. So this is why I’m—personally—I’m applying myself to this issue now.
Gellman: Interesting. The comments of your anonymous vice president—I love that you have an anonymous source here—your anonymous vice president, who under truth serum would be made by many, many government officials, and many, many companies as well—the Internet was this ungoverned, decentralized, free space, and increasingly has come under the influence of powerful actors. What are the threats to the model that you are trying to promote, and what are you doing about them?
Chehadé: The Internet is—
Gellman: Let’s—I mean, name names here, you know?
Chehadé: Well, the Internet is challenging every power structure that exists today in the nation state-Westphalian model. It is challenging it, and they don’t know what to do. I mean, Hollande in France three weeks ago ordered the shutdown of a number of sites that were inciting French citizens to join ISIS. He had no clue what it meant to do that. I mean, the folks in Orange and in the various companies that were asked to shut these sites were stunned by his decree, and did not understand legally how to do that. So takedowns and encroachment by government is happening because they are challenged. They really don’t know what to do.
I was in Turkey and I met the minister of telecommunications, who is getting every month 500 court orders to shut sites, because any citizen in Turkey can walk to a judge and say—show a site on a website, an iPad—and say, “This is offensive to me,” and the judge gives them a court order to shut it. Of course none—they go to the minister of telecommunications and say, “Shut the site.” The guy says, “Well, most of these sites are not in Turkey.” So they hired a New York lawyer to help them shut these sites. Millions of dollars later they realize that they turn them off here, they start again the next hour in another place. They are challenged. They don’t know what to do. So the extreme is shut down Twitter, shut down Facebook, and then they quickly realize this doesn’t work. One minister in that part of the world told me, “My own 12-year-old came up to me and said, ‘Dad, the whole school hates me now because you shut down one of these services.’” You can’t do that. This doesn’t work.
Gellman: But so that’s in a sense a fake threat, I mean, that’s incompetent people who don’t understand what they are asking for. What are the real threats?
Chehadé: There are many of them, Barton. There are many people in government who don’t know what to do, and they are doing, frankly, incompetent things, and it’s breaking our heart what—
Gellman: Right, but distributed power, I mean, you know—was it Barlow who said, “The Internet interprets censorship as a defect and routes around it.” So that is not a threat to global openness. What is? What could go wrong with this TLD expansion you are doing?
Chehadé: So several things could go. First, we could have serious Internet fragmentation at the public policy level, and that means every time the Internet crosses a jurisdictional border you have different policies to apply. We have not seen the beginning of this yet, but it’s starting. We’re seeing ministers and regional areas starting to apply policies on child protection on the Internet that are completely incongruent with the next country or the next region. It will start putting so many roadblocks on this highway we are all riding on that we haven’t even thought about it yet. So this is a serious issue, policy fragmentation.
The second issue that we are seeing is a movement towards more fragmented business Internets, whereby businesses are starting to worry about the security issues, and so they’re saying to—I was with a very large ISP, the second largest in the world, and they told me most business is telling them, “We want private Internets. We want to start moving our entire customer base to a separate Internet, because it’s costing us an enormous amount of money on security issues.” So fragmentation at the ISP level is going to happen as well.
Gellman: Why do we care? I mean, if someone has a more secure private Internet—I mean, Google synchronizes data between its data centers on private fiber. What’s wrong with that?
Chehadé: I think the more fragmentation happens across the world, especially if you have people like Merkel after her phone was touched saying, “Let’s create a German Internet.” Then it took her 24 hours to realize this is not feasible so she went to Paris. I was there that day and she said to the French, “Why don’t we create a European Internet and separate ourselves?” And the French, thankfully, said, “No, we don’t think that’s a good project.”
I think fragmentation will start making our ability to render products and services around the world more difficult, at the policy level and, potentially, at the ISP level. I don’t see it yet, because right now we are still all riding on an open, frankly largely unencumbered Internet structure.
You asked me about the top level domains.  ICANN manages the route of the Internet where we maintain the top level domains. This is how you resolve when you go to any URL, or or dot.whatever—we help the world resolve where to send that traffic, and that route is one of the last guarantees of one Internet. If the route itself is split, we don’t have one Internet, we have hundreds and thousands of networks. And the pressure on ICANN on this issue is quite significant right now. In fact, there are countries that threaten me that they have their own route, and that if we do not make sure our route is open and transparent and not influenced by one government—and today our route is highly influenced by the U.S. government—that they will set up their own routes.
Gellman: But does that mean that if I am in that country and I type in—
Gellman: —, I don’t reach a different destination, I get there by a different path?
Chehadé: No. You will reach a different destination. If there is a different route, what guarantees that you always get to the right destination no matter how you get there is the single route, because we resolve always every address on the Internet to a specific machine with an IP address. That’s what we guarantee. If the route itself is split, if we have two routes, then you could type in Russia but end up in some other place.
Gellman: Which brings to mind the authentication mechanism. So what’s your relationship with certificate authorities?
Chehadé: We have a very intense relationship with the certificate authorities, to say the least.
Gellman: Is it a happy marriage?
Chehadé: It—again, because we believe in a bottom-up, open Internet where we cooperate, we are all loosely coupled. It’s very important. Even when I say to the route operators, “I’m going to add a country—” South Sudan was created as a country, so we had to add dot ss, which happened to be their country top level domain—even ICANN cannot tell the route operators they must add Now, the good news is they always comply, but I have no legal authority over them to do that. The system works based on trust and a loosely coupled model that has worked very well for the last 16 years. Of course, if you are a government, what I just said does not sit very well with most people, that we actually run the Internet—$4 trillion of it in the G20 economy now—based on loosely coupled distributed relationships of trust with the certificate authorities, with the route operators, with all the players in the Internet. And it works.
Gellman: Well, the certificate authorities, or at least some of them, have been shown to be not trustworthy, so you can, if you have influence over a CA, you can buy a certificate that tells everybody inside your country that they have reached Gmail when they haven’t.
Chehadé: Yeah. Correct. And so we read out, we find out who is playing these kinds of games and we expose them. And frankly when you expose people in this environment we are in, in this Internet governance model that is open, transparent, I think the truth very quickly comes out, and the community acts. Our community is very alert.
Gellman: So are you willing to come out and name names, I mean, to do a "name and shame," or is that—do you have to be too much of a diplomat for that?
Chehadé: It’s not so much of a diplomat, it’s a system of mutual, loosely coupled trust, and we go after people.  My compliance department unfortunately has grown significantly. We now have a pretty significant number of people tracking things. Also, we cannot take a very legalistic view to these things, we also have to take a community view to these things. So for example, ICANN is not responsible for what you put on a website. It’s not my business. But some people say, “You should have some level of responsibility.” If someone goes and buys something on the Internet and—maybe buys a drug and the drug hurts them—is this ICANN’s responsibility, because I happened to have authorized someone to give a website name to this person who then sold the drug that killed someone? I mean—
Gellman: I’m pretty sure your answer would be ‘no’ on that one.
Chehadé: My answer would be "no," but I say my answer is "no" because it is not my business, versus, say, “My answer is ‘no,’ I’m not responsible for that.” And I gave the analogy of having a very bad cab ride. Do you go and complain to the DMV because they gave a license plate to the fellow who leased the car to that cab company? Of course not. But does the DMV have responsibility if someone says, “There was a crime that happened in that cab,” to say who owned that cab because they have a license plate and they can match that to an owner? Yes. So I do have some role to play. I don’t think—and this is, again, back to my point about how governments are challenged, because an Internet, there isn’t a neck to choke. It’s such a highly distributed model that a bad cab ride has many players that need to cooperate to actually help stop this from happening again.
Gellman: So you have a narrow slice of responsibility. You’ve moved toward something that would give you broader influence in—address broader questions. In Net Mundial—talk about that.
Chehadé: Yes. Net Mundial—very important. I want to make sure I convey this to you. On Thursday the World Economic Forum, ICANN, and the Brazilian multi-stakeholder body called CGI announced the joint initiative called Net Mundial—find it at It’s the first initiative to bring us all together to start shaping how the Internet will be governed in the future. It is our responsibility—each one of us who use the Internet, as users, as companies, as individuals, as investors—to participate in how the Internet is governed. If we are not active then someone else will step into that vacuum. ICANN is only on the technical side. But who is making policies on how privacy will be handled? Who is making policies on how children will be protected? Today that vacuum is large. Net Mundial is trying to fill it. I urge you to please participate with ideas, with projects. It’s a new effort to crowd source governance of the Internet, and that’s what it is.
Gellman:, and we will have to stop there. Thank you so much.


Barton Gellman

Senior Fellow, Author and Journalist, The Century Foundation

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