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t3knomanser's Fustian Deposits

Who Owns the Internet...

How Random Babbling Becomes Corporate Policy

run the fuck away

Mad science gone horribly, horribly wrong(or right).

Who Owns the Internet...

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tesla
...a comedy of misunderstandings and a tragedy of the commons.

Before we can discuss the internet and ownership, we must first understand what the internet actually is. Most people think that it's a combination of computers, network cables and sattelites, linked together in a way that allows us to use it for whatever; IM, mail, web, etc. Most people are wrong. The internet is a collection of protocols- instructions that tell one thing how to talk to another thing so they both understand each other. Now, when we talk about internet protocols, we immediately think computers, but that's getting to detailed. Remember, the Internet is geek-land. It's possible that two people could talk to each other via TCP/IP without an intervening computer. It'd be stupid to do so, but it's possible. We'll just say the Internet allows any number of devices to communicate with each other.

Now, these protocols, when used in a computer context (which, in practicality, is all we're really interested in; people don't talk via TCP/IP for good reasons), it creates certain commodities. The first commodity is a network infrastructure; each of these TCP/IP messages has to get from one device to another device. That creates the demand, first, for physical data-transmission lines. But there needs to be a way to get messages across those lines in a meaningful way. This creates a collection of hubs, routers, nameservers, etc. Each of these, is another device involved in the communication. To get a message from device n, to device m, it must pass through a collection of other devices (c[]). The size of this collection is inconsequential; they all talk to each other with the same internet protocols.

Now, the protocols themselves are open and well documented. The same software that makes the Internet work can work in any system. The Internet itself is not only unowned, but unownable. There are some neet aspects to the protocol; network damage is automatically routed around (and censorship is often interpreted as damage).

However, the commodities, are owned. People can own the physical tools that the internet requires. That's a big difference from owning the Internet, even though it might not seem like much. Because people can own the commodities, they can attempt to control what information can pass through their commodities. ISPs do this alot; things like AOL can effectively censor the internet- to their own users. But even those users can sign onto a proxy and get that content anyway. So, even though ownership of a commodity gives the owner some control over what happens on the Internet, unless there's a coordinated effort among network owners, the Internet is effectively a commons.

The Internet is subject to the same potential damage as a real-world commons. Go to a local park, and you'll see litter and grafitti. Browse the Internet and you'll see things like hacked websites and Googlebombs. However, the Internet is largely self regulating. There are a large number of individuals that have a personal stake in the operation of the Internet. From network providers like ISPs or backbone services, to content providers like web-site owners trying to sell a product, if the Internet stops working, it's bad for all of them. So whenever a threat appears, be it hackers, a worm or virus, or physical sabotage, these people actively attempt to resolve the problem. The very nature of the Internet makes it impossible to stop those sorts of attacks (though physical sabotage would be pretty ineffective on large-scale terms). However, the fact that the commons has so many users, means that without creating a complicated rule set, you can have a pretty stable and safe environment to do... anything.

Going back to control of commodities, any organization that wants to partake in the commons has to be located somewhere. The devices they use to access and share the commons have to have a physical location, and immediately become subject to the laws of that location. Right? Sort of. The US has pretty strict gambling laws, and Internet gambling is right out. A few companies tried to run an Internet gambling site in the US, and were shut down pretty quick. That must mean there's no gambling sites, right? ::snicker:: Sure. And I've got a bridge to sell you. The servers simply move to a country that doesn't have a law against it. So the US says, "Okay, but it's still illegal, so ISPs should start blocking access to those sites." Some bothered to try and comply, but remember what I said before... a simple proxy service can allow access to that site. China has the same problem with pr0n and anti-communist propoganda, while Germany suffers from a struggle with Nazi material. There have been a few anomalies (Germany managed to get a French online auction shut-down), for the most part, the Internet actively resists being controlled.

So, even if someone controls a commodity involved in the Internet, and that ostensibly gives them control over what happens on the Internet, the very structure of the Internet makes it next to impossible to actually excersise that control. Most of the commodity owners accept this, and just don't bother watching what gets communicated over their devices. There's too much traffic, and too much individual power to control it.


To sum up, the Internet is a commons of a new breed. It's very nature makes it impossible to control the behavior of its users. Unlike a town park, which can be monitored by police, it's impossible to police the Internet effectively. This leaves the commons open to attack by miscreants, however, the same nature creates an environment where the other users of the commons have an active stake in the commons, and hence, work to protect it. While no police watch the park, the person with the hot-dog cart has a .45 in a clamshell holster under the counter. Or more accurately, has a pretty high end repair kit, so when his cart is damaged, he can get it fixed pretty quick. He may even have a backup cart. At any rate, this commons is fairly tragedy-free, and as a result, doesn't need legislation (which won't work anyway) to protect it.
  • To say that the internet is simply its protocols is not entirely accurate. It's the equivalent of giving someone the rules of grammar and telling them that it is the English language. Without actual data, in the form of words and the meanings which group them into sentences, such a "language" is effectively nothing. Similarly, without all the computers connected to it and, more importantly, the data on those computers, the internet protocols are nothing. They become simply ethereal concepts. I would argue that the internet is distinguished from any other network and in fact defined by all the data within it. Now this data is obviously not static anymore than water molecules in the oceans are static, yet it has a definite existence that lasts beyond the coming and going of its individual components. Thus the internet is not truly a commons in the way you describe. It is more of a community or composite. All of the individual servers and their data combine to make it, but each retains their own identity and ownership separate from it. So while nobody owns or can control the whole thing, every part of it is owned by somebody, aside from the ethereal protocols which amount to nothing more than the medium in which the internet exists. If you really think the internet is simply a set of protocols, what then are other networks, not connected to the internet, using those same protocols?

    As to controlling it, you are right that (at this time) it is impossible to regulate the entire network. That may or may not change with time. What one can regulate is what happens to the piece of the network one owns. When a great many users rely on that particular piece, however, that gives the owner some degree of control. Sure, AOL users CAN proxy around the censorship, but how many do? How many even know that they can, or how to do so? From a statistical standpoint the internet can be controlled. Those who know how to break free of those controls are in the minority and, therefore, are in danger of being singled out and targeted by any person or entity seeking control of the whole thing. So far this has not been achieved, largely because without those people who know what they are doing there wouldn't be anyone to maintain the network, but I would not consider it impossible.

    There is also the matter of simple evolution to consider. Right now the internet still contains a great many private, small servers. But they are growing fewer, and are used by an increasingly smaller share of the total internet users. Whereas massive internet sites continue to grow and take up more and more of the internet's resources (read: users). The internet is still a young system and so the process is still difficult to see, but it exists nonetheless. This is not something which happens by mere chance. It is the nature of all "organic" systems to proceed in this fashion. It will happen in just the same way as single celled organisms evolved into and become dominated by multicellular ones. Or as small, private businesses are being out-competed by large corporations. Or small nations are being walked all over by large ones. Sure, the little guys are still out there, they still exist, but who is it that gets to make the big decisions?
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