Over the last two and a half decades, the internet has evolved and expanded into something barely recognizable from its humble beginnings. Trying to understand what the internet is and how it works can be incredibly confusing.
But who actually owns the internet? For various reasons, this question is quite hard to answer. In this article, we will delve into possible answers for who owns the internet.
What Is the Internet?
The Internet is a huge network of computers. Every computer connected through the internet can send information to other computers on the network. The internet works via a mass of cabling and wireless communication technology (like telecom towers and satellites) connecting all of these computers.
Small computer networks existed in the late 50s and 60s. Then, with the invention of packet switching, much larger computer networks were developed in universities, government institutions, and various companies. By the early 90s, a worldwide, privately accessible internet was available.
This soon led to the internet as we know it today.
Nobody Owns the Internet In Full
The Internet is, in a way, more of a concept than a physical entity. No person has a patent or copyright over the internet. Instead, parts of the internet (data centers, cabling, satellites, routers, etc.) are owned by countless individuals, companies, and government agencies. The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, famously declined to patent the internet to keep it free and accessible to everyone.
To answer the question “Who owns the internet?”, we could ask the related question: “Who owns the infrastructure of the Internet?”
So, Who Owns the Infrastructure of the Internet?
The larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs) own and provide the largest portions of internet infrastructure.
This includes network access points, extensive cabling, and routers. Today there are more than 700,000 miles of submarine cables—roughly 28 times around the equator!
Because there’s a lot of overlap in telephone networks and the internet backbone, many telecommunication companies (like AT&T, Spring, and CenturyLink) own massive portions of the internet backbone.
Tier 1 ISPs
Tier 1 ISPs make up most of the internet’s backbone, owning most of the IPv4 addresses worldwide. These Tier 1 providers typically rent their infrastructure to smaller ISPs which then sell the internet to end-users.
There are multiple Tier 1 ISPs, including Level 3, Cogent, Telia Carrier, NTT, GTT, Tata Communications, and Telecom Italia.
Interestingly (and perhaps poignantly), much of the internet’s infrastructure, especially when it comes to phone towers and cabling, was funded by taxpayer money before the privatization of the network infrastructure. However, nowadays, very little of the internet’s infrastructure is publicly owned.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon have also begun buying and developing intercontinental optical fiber cables. Between them, they now own nearly a 10th of all submarine cables. Some critics view this move as dangerous, potentially allowing already incredibly powerful companies to have too much control over the internet.
Who Controls and Regulates the Internet?
The internet is largely uncontrolled and self-regulating. There is no single, centralized organization that controls the internet. The design of the internet’s infrastructure makes it incredibly hard to regulate.
Information is sent in “packets” via many possible routes. The “Internet Protocol” provides connecting devices with the capability to receive and understand data. Because packets can be sent via so many different routes, it is easy for the Internet Protocol (IP) to find a new pathway for that data to reach its destination.
Various governments have attempted to regulate the internet in their jurisdictions for various reasons, usually relating to illegal or harmful content on the internet. These regulations usually either occur at the level of content (i.e., shutting down a website) or at the user level (i.e., criminal charges).
In this way, governments regulate the internet via laws. For example, laws against online piracy or illegal content. Some countries also utilize censorship to block certain parts of the internet from their constituents. This has given rise to concerns about free speech and freedom of information and how an authoritarian regime could withdraw information and communicative capabilities from its citizens.
Another interesting point of control over the internet is the transfer of data through infrastructure owned by different groups. It would be possible for certain large ISPs to disallow data transfers or charge for the service along their routes. Instead, the larger ISPs enter into peering agreements that allow users of each other’s networks to use their network at no cost.
Organizations Define Internet Standards
There are also important groups of individuals and organizations that aim to define and promote standards for the internet. One of these is WC3 or the World Wide Web Consortium. WC3 publishes standards for web development that aim to ensure that web accessibility, internet infrastructure, and data management are standardized across the industry.
Another organization in this field includes ICANN (The Internat Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which coordinates and maintains several key databases, ensuring that the internet remains stable, secure, and operational.
There is also the Internet Assigned Numbers Association (IANA), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), Internet Architecture Board (IAB), Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), and the IEEE Standards Association. Each of these organizations plays a role in regulating the internet in the form of developing standards, directly overseeing crucial roles, or maintaining databases that are central to the internet’s continued operation.
ISPs and Net Neutrality
The concept of net neutrality comes in here, which is the idea that ISPs should treat all data the same. They shouldn’t prioritize certain data over others to try to get users to favor certain content providers, for instance.
Net neutrality has advocates and critics, and various legal battles are still ongoing worldwide. Advocates argue that smaller content providers could be eliminated entirely without net neutrality, leading to massive monopolies over internet content. Many countries operate antitrust authorities set up to ensure that no single internet provider can monopolize the market.
But, many tech experts argue that the massive tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) already have the majority of power and influence over the internet. For example, Google and Facebook now make up more than 70% of all internet traffic. In addition, Amazon’s Amazon Web Services (AWS) runs around a third of the internet.
Who Owns the Data?
Data ownership, or intellectual property ownership, has given rise to massive debates in the last few years. The controversy surrounding large tech company’s habit of collecting swathes of information about individuals has prompted the question of who actually owns that data.
For example, information about your habits online will be collected by websites like Facebook. This data can then be sold to third-party organizations to advertise more effectively.
When asking who owns the internet, it is also important to ask who owns the data produced by the internet since this is a major source of monetization, information, and potentially control of the internet.
Data ownership is complex, and there’s no holdfast rule as to who actually owns any data. But, the person who owns the data-producing platform (like Facebook) probably owns the data, legally speaking.
So, Who Owns the Internet?
The short answer is that the internet is owned by several large companies. The vast majority of the internet infrastructure is owned by a very small number of large communication companies.
When it comes to who has power over the internet, again, the answer is a very small group of companies. While governments attempt to regulate certain aspects of the web, the law hasn’t been able to keep up with the evolution of the internet. This means that now only four or five companies control the majority of the internet.
It’s a lot trickier to determine ownership with data than physical cables, especially since laws are different around the globe. But, again, when it comes to the ownership of data on the internet, the answer is the same companies (at least for the most part).
Net Neutrality is a complex topic, but this website does a great job explaining it in terms you’ll understand.
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