Pretty much every other communication medium has somebody in control. Telephone systems are run by telephone companies and regulated by governments; postal services are a mixture of national monopolies and enterprise, usually regulated by governments; newspapers, TV, and radio are run by corporations and regulated by – guess who? – governments yet again.
But not the Internet.
Actually that’s not entirely true. Corporations and governments do have a say about the way the Internet is run. What sets it apart is the small degree of control they’re able to exercise, and the fact that so many corporations and governments are involved that none of them individually has much power.
There are thousands of companies involved, yet none has succeeded in getting any kind of vertical grip on the Internet as a whole, with a controlling interest at all the different levels: browsers, operating systems, hardware, telecoms, ISPs, servers, hosting, site design software and finally site content.
Maybe Microsoft came closest first, but losing its anti-trust case was a significant setback. In any case, it’s still weak in many areas, especially telecoms and hardware, though it continues to buy into companies that can help in these departments. Also it’s not a strong ISP, it isn’t winning its battles over server software and site design software, and isn’t the word on everybody’s lips when it comes to site content. Definitely not a fully-fledged vertically-integrated irresistible force.
Cisco makes almost all the routers used on the Internet, and its other business areas are, er… yes, exactly.
How about governments? Do any nations exert great influence? A few have gone for the iron fist approach. Examples are China, Burma, Indonesia and Australia, where Internet access is tightly controlled and only people with sufficient technical knowledge are able to break the law and use the Internet as they want.
Elsewhere, there have been a lot of words spoken but not much action. The UK has forced all ISPs to route a bugging tap to its Intelligence Services, allowing easy access to every Internet message transmitted through the UK. It’s exerting its control in a sneaky manner.
Naturally the major national player is the US Government. But by happy coincidence it’s the government least likely to kill a goose that lays golden eggs just because the goose gets uppity and bites it in the ass from time to time. While the Internet continues to power the US economy and keep the voters rich and happy, the US government won’t try to shackle it.
If it fails to drive the US economy, all bets are off. The weak points of the Internet are domain registration and DNS (as any hacker will tell you) and the US government is very close to these. Though fortunately the Internet has probably grown up enough to resist American interference.
As in all great balanced power structures, there are lots of other power-mongers too, all with very little control but as a group counting for plenty in the grand scheme of things.
First, there’s the W3C, working hard to establish standards and help the Web in whichever direction it goes. It has to be the most powerful non-corporate and non-governmental body on the Internet.
Then there’s the Internet Engineering Task Force, and a dozen other worthy bodies who do far more than keep the wheels greased on the Internet express train – they’ve way out in front clearing trees and checking the ground isn’t too boggy to lay fresh tracks. Hats off to them.
But actually all these identifiable bodies and companies and nation states are way outnumbered by the last group of people who have a big say in controlling the Internet. I’m talking here about network managers.
They’re the people who decide in practice, on a day to day level, how things are run. They decide whose offensive site gets flamed off the server, whose abusive emails disappear into the ether never to be seen again, whose DNS entries are restored when the system mysteriously loses them, who is given that extra level of support that keeps their site going, and all kinds of small but desperately important things that are somehow similar to the humdrum but crucial things that mothers do in the non-technical world.
There are hundreds of thousands of networks all around the world connected to the Internet and hundreds of thousands of matching network managers doing that technical mother thing right now.
A lot of power lies in the hands of this barely identifiable group of geeks. In the past the world was run by military adventurers, by royalty, by great leaders of faiths, by countries, by landed families. But now we’re in the odd position of passing a large slice of the world’s power to an amorphous collection of technical people.
These people are rational, highly-educated, scientific, international, low-profile and manage to function as a group through mutual consent without big formal structures or lots of friction. It can’t possibly last. Despots, megalomaniacs and corporate sharks must be getting ready to move in soon.
But for now, at least, it’s true. The Internet is controlled by a vast army of techies, along with a range of companies without much power and governments that generally prefer to leave it alone.
“Who controls the Internet?”
Yet everybody to such an equal extent that nobody is in control.