We take the Internet for granted these days. It’s been declared an international human right, it’s the very oxygen of media we breathe and it’s the extension of our memory, allowing us to remember what we forget. But like internal plumbing, power grids and highway infrastructure, there’s a lot about the Internet that you probably don’t know. For example, have you tried turning it on and off again?
The Internet we talk about is not the Internet.
When we speak of the Internet, we’re usually referring to popular websites, search engines like Google and social media like Facebook. But that’s not the Internet. The Internet is actually the infrastructure that links all these things together. It’s the protocol that lets computers send data to one another in an efficient decentralized manner. It’s what makes web pages and file-sharing and streaming services and email, and any other future innovations possible, as its engineers intended.
The Internet we know is just the tip of the iceberg.
Every measurement of the Internet will tell you one thing: it’s big, and it’s growing at an exponential rate. But what most people don’t realize is how much of the Internet is buried beyond the reach of most search engines. These include dynamically generated pages, pages tucked beneath paywalls and logins and pages that aren’t linked to by other pages. Simply put, the Internet is more than just the information superhighway, but the alleys and side streets too, and surfing it all could take decades.
Permit-free innovation is what makes up the Internet.
If you’re old enough to have used floppy disks and dial-up modems, then you already know that the Internet we know today is very different from the one that appeared decades ago. That’s because it is intended to treat all data and applications equally. This allowed pioneering software engineers to implement their ideas freely. Imagine if the World Wide Web, blogging software, and streaming services couldn’t be integrated into the network due to red tape. Ugh.
It was invented by a team of idealists for the government.
The foundations of the Internet are credited to Tim Berners-Lee. Together with a small group of fellow computer scientists, he put together many of the systems that allowed the Internet to operate as it does with various openly documented protocols. In effect, anyone who studied their work could put together their own web server and web pages. Berners-Lee refused to claim patent and royalties, arguing that the Internet and the web should be a free resource.
Fourteen people hold the keys to the Internet
The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, is the non-profit organization that holds the “keys to the Internet.” These keys don’t necessarily control the Internet’s functions, mind you, but they do provide access to the hardware security modules that authenticate the domain names. Some keyholders activate their keys serve as “cryptographic officers,” while others serve as “recovery key share holders” who can activate backup hardware during a disaster.
The Internet was originally meant to be a read and write medium.
Originally, Berners-Lee wanted an Internet where everyone was not only free to publish, but where they were free to modify the work of others. It seems like anarchy, but then again, Wikipedia operates on the same principle. Still, practical considerations led to compromise. Online content operates on a system of administrative permissions, which protects it from less than benevolent vandals. Still, the freedom to publish means that everyone still has a say on the network.
The Internet’s environmental costs are larger than we think
All this data and instant access to it comes with a cost. No surprise there, for between 300 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute and 40,000 Google searches every second, a lot of electronic action is going on. That means huge server farms all over the world are sucking up massive quantities of electricity, not to mention the carbon footprint generated from building them. Not to be bleak, but every time you Google “polar bears,” you’re probably melting an ice cap.
The Internet was meant to be neutral, free and open.
The Internet has become a platform for innovative successes like Facebook and Steam. But these companies can wield their power abusively. Google can make businesses difficult to find while YouTube can top rank the videos of big media companies. That’s because many of these successful companies don’t share the same techno libertarian attitude as Tim Berners-Lee and friends, which is unfortunate because their success is a result of the Internet’s free and open nature
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