A shared asset we should treasure

Who owns the Internet? It would be nice to be able to say “we do”, and there is some truth in that. That’s because the Internet is not a network but a set of shared, agreed standards about how to exchange data between networks.

The standards are concerned with transmission of information between computers - the servers where websites are stored and the PCs and smart phones that people use to view the websites, exchange email or use social media. This information travels in packets.

In order for a packet of data to find its way from one computer to another it needs an address. Just like the telephone network uses telephone numbers to identify lines, the Internet uses ‘IP addresses’ and ‘domain names’ to identify computers. One body - ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) - is in control of this. ICANN is actually ‘owned’ by the US department of commerce but it has a sophisticated governance structure involving ‘constituencies’ representing different interests. In many ways it is a model of openness and transparency. The US Government has announced its intention to privatise ICANN from 2015. It says that the ‘multi-stakeholder model’ will be retained, but details are not yet clear and some worry that without the US Government there to defend it, ICANN’s effective independence will be compromised.

Once it knows where it is going, an information packet must conform to a ‘protocol’ to move through and between networks. The latest version of the ‘Internet Protocol’, IPv6, is owned by a not-for-profit association, the Internet Society, which has a mission "to promote the open development, evolution and use of the Internet for the benefit of all people throughout the world”. So the standard is held in trust for the public good and, since it relies on everyone agreeing to use it, truly is a shared asset.

The genius of the Internet is that these standards encourage openness and innovation. That is down to three principles: information can travel from any part of the Internet to any other; each network must play its part in transferring data; and packets can contain any type of information - you don’t need permission to adapt the Internet to some new purpose.

These principles underpin the way that the Internet has changed the world. Because no permission was needed, no one could prevent the creation of disruptive peer-to-peer networks like Skype and Bit Torrent, even though Skype threatened the business models of the very telecoms companies that carry Internet traffic. Because traffic can flow from any computer to any other, the website of the mightiest corporation and the lowly blogger who calls it to account are equally accessible to everyone.

Except of course when they are not.

It is well known that the Chinese government prevents its citizens from being able to access websites or use services that it feels are a threat to its power. In doing this it breaks all three principles.

Perhaps more insidious however is the debate raging in the USA, and to a lesser extent in Europe, about ‘net neutrality’. The US FCC (Federal Communications Commission) is proposing explicitly to allow Internet service providers and telecoms companies to create special, charged-for fast lanes. The idea is that big content providers like Netflix will be able to pay for their packets to get privileged treatment and so improve ‘customer experience’. In a world where the networks that make up the Internet constantly struggle to keep pace with the growing traffic, the danger of course is that this will mean that all the other content will be much less accessible.

The opposition to these proposals includes, ironically enough, Netflix along with corporate giants like Amazon, Microsoft and Google (Apple is conspicuously absent). Lets hope that pressure from net freedom activists and these pro-neutrality corporations will be enough to block the proposals and establish the principle of net neutrality in law.