Laurel L. Russwurm's Free Culture Blog

a writer, the copyfight and internet freedom

Who owns the tangible Internet?

with 5 comments

[Seems my Buzz Machine: Clinton and the freedom to connect comment has gotten out of hand again. Thing is, it’s an incredibly important issue, so here are my further adventures in windmill tilting. ]

This is the Internet... click the image to visit the Opte Project and see what the Internet looked like on different days.

Intangible concepts are often the ones that matter most.

What is the Internet? It is not analogous to a house. But you folks want tangibles, so lets talk tangibles.

A house occupies a finite amount of space. A house anywhere in our world is most likely to fall under the specific jurisdiction and laws of the nation in which it stands. Under the laws of the land, it is usually straightforward to determine who holds title to the house. In most cases only the owner has the rights to alter or amend the structure of the house.

The Internet, on the other hand, spans the globe. This means that there are bits of infrastructure residing in many nations and under many different legal systems. And if Fred in Topeka sends an email to Mary in London, the email it is broken down into multiple packets which are sent independently — part of Fred’s email might go in a relatively straight line from sender to destination but part of it may be rerouted via Sri Lanka and another through Iceland.

The “infrastructure” is neither finite nor static, and many different people in many different places control many different bits of that infrastructure. There are Internet backbone peers, and Internet Service Providers and the satellites, wires, cables and routers connecting everything together in a multitude of different ways.

At the ends of the Internet are the users and content providers, who connect to the internet via their own bits of infrastructure. People connect and both upload and download content via devices that are only sometimes connected to The Internet, sometimes by wire and sometimes by WiFi. When my cell phone is turned on, I can connect to the Internet with it. When I turn it off, that’s no longer possible. Private individuals and companies can host their websites on their own computers– and they own that piece of Infrastructure. These network connections that make up the Internet fluctuate moment by moment.

You’ll have noticed that people have been referring to “information highways” and “pipes” for as long as we’ve been trying to understand the Internet, because, although the infrastructure is part of the Internet, it is not The Internet.

The Internet is a peer network that exists to share content. Unlike traditional television broadcasting networks, only rarely is Internet content provided by Internet Service Providers (with the exception of some jurisdictions that allow anti-competitive corporate conduct). An enormous amount of the content available on the Internet is not the property of the ISPs who own the Infrastructure, but is instead is freely put there by users. People and organizations are releasing extraordinary quantities of photographs and artwork and music and movies under creative commons licenses, and blogs, microblogging, self publishing and citizen journalism are on the rise. It would clearly be a tangible and grievous error to award ownership of this great human outpouring of creativity to those who own segments of Internet infrastructure.

Although there are tangibles, it is the intangibles of The internet that draw us in. If you really need an analogy, a house doesn’t do it. Try using a community.

We all own the Internet.



Image Credits: Map of the Internet – photo by the Opte Project

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Written by Laurel L. Russwurm

February 18, 2011 at 5:10 pm

5 Responses

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  1. oh and very cool that Opte Project Laurie!

    Sheila Creighton

    February 21, 2011 at 4:43 pm

  2. why is it a question of ownership? kinda more like we rent the space to share our own ideas etc…The medium as a whole, not sure there is an owner for that.

    Sheila Creighton

    February 21, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    • Until very recently that is how the Internet was. It was a commons, shared by all. The problem is that the entities that own bits of infrastructure want to impose their will on the Internet, what they consider their right of ownership, to the detriment of all.

      It becomes an issue for those of us who share where Internet carriers like Bell discriminate against the Internet traffic they are in competition with (issues of Throttling and Net Neutrality) or governments want to shut down traffic they disagree with (Filtering & Kill Switches). And of course the television networks and copyright maximalists really want the Internet to be a one way distribution medium they control (like television), because the Internet does away with much of the infrastructure of middlemen and allows Independent creators to bypass them and deal directly with their own audience.

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      February 22, 2011 at 11:40 am

    • Isn’t it though. It certainly helped me be able to visualize the Internet. There is so much incredible stuff online; it boggles the mind. But of course that’s what is so excellent.

      Laurel L. Russwurm

      February 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

  3. […] Who owns the tangible Internet? What is the Internet? It is not analogous to a house. But you folks want tangibles, so lets talk tangibles. […]


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