Over the past two and a half decades, the Internet has evolved and expanded into something that is 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? This question is difficult to answer for a number of reasons. In this article we will examine possible answers for internet owners.
What is the internet
The internet is a huge network of computers. Any computer connected over the Internet can send information to other computers on the network. The Internet works over a variety of cables and wireless communication technology (such as telecommunication towers and satellites) that connect all of these computers together.
Small computer networks existed in the late 1950s and 1960s. Then, with the invention of packet switching, much larger computer networks were developed in universities, government institutions, and various companies. At the beginning of the 1990s, a worldwide, privately accessible Internet was available.
This soon resulted in the Internet as we know it today.
Nobody completely owns the Internet
In a way, the Internet is more of a concept than a physical entity. Nobody owns a patent or copyright on the internet. Instead, parts of the Internet (data centers, cabling, satellites, routers, etc.) belong to myriad individuals, businesses, and government agencies. The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, famously refused to patent the Internet in order 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 Internet Infrastructure?”
So who owns the infrastructure of the internet?
The larger Internet Service Providers (ISPs) own and provide most of the Internet infrastructure.
This includes network access points, extensive cabling and routers. Today there are more than 700,000 miles of submarine cable – around 28 times around the equator!
Because there is a lot of overlap between telephone networks and the Internet backbone, many telecommunications companies (such as AT&T, Spring, and CenturyLink) own large portions of the Internet backbone.
Tier 1 ISPs
Tier 1 ISPs make up most of the Internet’s backbone and have the largest number of IPv4 addresses in the world. These tier 1 providers typically rent their infrastructure to smaller ISPs who then sell the Internet to end users.
There are several Tier 1 ISPs including Level 3, Cogent, Telia Carrier, NTT, GTT, Tata Communications, and Telecom Italia.
Interestingly (and perhaps poignantly) before the network infrastructure was privatized, much of the Internet infrastructure, especially telephone towers and cabling, was funded by taxpayers’ money. Today, however, very little of the infrastructure of the Internet is publicly owned.
Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon have also started buying and developing intercontinental fiber optic cables. Together they now own almost a tenth of all submarine cables. Some critics consider this move dangerous as it may allow already incredibly powerful companies 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 difficult to regulate.
Information is sent in “packets” over many possible routes. The “Internet Protocol” enables connected devices to receive and understand data. Because packets can be sent over so many different routes, it is easy for the Internet Protocol (IP) to find a new way to get this data to its destination.
Different governments have tried to regulate the internet in their jurisdictions for a variety of reasons, most of which is illegal or harmful content on the internet. These regulations are usually either at the content level (ie switching off a website) or at the user level (ie criminal charges).
This is how governments regulate the Internet through laws. For example laws against online piracy or illegal content. Some countries also use censorship to block certain parts of the internet from their voters. This has raised concerns about freedom of expression and information and how an authoritarian regime might deprive its citizens of information and communication skills.
Another interesting point of control over the Internet is the transmission of data over infrastructures belonging to different groups. Certain large ISPs would be able to prohibit 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 for free.
Organizations define internet standards
There are also important groups of individuals and organizations that have set themselves the goal of defining and promoting standards for the Internet. One of them is WC3 or the World Wide Web Consortium. WC3 publishes web development standards that are designed to ensure that web access, internet infrastructure, and data management are standardized across the industry.
Another organization in this area is ICANN (The Internat Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which coordinates and maintains several important databases to ensure that the Internet remains stable, secure, and operational.
There is also the Internet Assigned Numbers Association (IANA), the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF), and the IEEE Standards Association. Each of these organizations plays a role in the regulation of the Internet in the form of the development of standards, the direct monitoring of important functions or the maintenance of databases that are of central importance for the further operation of the Internet.
ISPs and net neutrality
This is where the concept of net neutrality comes into play, ie the idea that ISPs should treat all data equally. You should not prefer certain dates to others in an attempt to, for example, trick users into giving preference to certain content providers.
Net neutrality has both proponents and critics, and various legal disputes are still ongoing around the world. Proponents argue that without net neutrality, smaller content providers could be eliminated entirely, resulting in massive monopolies over internet content. Many countries have set up antitrust authorities to ensure that no single Internet provider can monopolize the market.
However, many tech experts argue that the giant tech companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc.) already have the majority of the power and influence over the internet. For example, Google and Facebook are now doing more than 70% of all internet traffic. In addition, Amazons Amazon Web Services (AWS) runs around a third of the internet.
Who does the data belong to?
Data ownership or intellectual property has led to massive debates in recent years. The controversy over the habit of large tech companies to collect information on individuals has raised the question of who that data actually belongs to.
For example, websites like Facebook collect information about your online habits. This data can then be sold to third party organizations to advertise more effectively.
When asked who owns the internet, it is also important to ask who owns the data produced by the internet as it is an important source of monetization, information and potential control over the internet.
Ownership of data is complex and there is no fixed rule as to who actually owns the data. But the person who owns the data-producing platform (like Facebook) is legally likely to own the data.
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 communications companies.
Even when asked who has power over the internet, the answer is a very small group of companies. While governments seek to regulate certain aspects of the Internet, the law has not kept pace with the development of the Internet. This means that only four or five companies control most of the Internet.
It is much more difficult to determine ownership from data than it is with physical cables, especially since laws differ around the world. But when it comes to data ownership on the internet, the answer is (at least for the most part) the same companies.
Net neutrality is a complex topic, but this website does a good job of explaining it in terms you understand.
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