Who Owns The Internet?

by Bob Seidel

The concept of "ownership" is integral to our capitalistic society. Everything has to have an owner, or at least a governing authority. We feel very uncomfortable in situations where that isn't true, and most of us feel that way about the Internet - and with good reason, I say.

I can't remember exactly when I got "on" the Internet, but I was exposed to it a bit at IBM prior to moving to Raleigh in 1992. I think I first started using a dial-up service in perhaps 1995. At that time, there was no World Wide Web (i.e. webpages as we know them today) and no fancy graphics - it was just text. We had newsgroups (called the USENET), we had IRC (chat), and we had Gopher (an early text/list based hypertext system). If you want to learn more Internet history, just Google for it - there is lots out there.

The Internet is both the physical connection network itself (the root servers and the network connections), and the data that flows on that network. The physical network evolved over time with mostly government and academic origins. But at the lowest level, it was just some interested people in one place saying to like-minded interested people in another place: "Hey, let's connect our computers and see what happens". Various groups sprang up to oversee and recommend changes to it, but none of these had absolute authority, or indeed any authority at all. The Internet grew because some good and bright people volunteered their own time to make it so.

Eventually the physical infrastructure of the Internet passed somewhat from the government/academic sectors to commercial companies - those that run the main "backbones" of the Internet for profit. But still there was no central ownership or authority. On the other hand, most of the administrative groups (those who allocate domain names, and IP addresses, etc.) are under American control. A recent meeting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis attempted to wrest control from the US - it didn't succeed but there were some governance concessions made, theoretically to be administered by the UN.

But there was always one overwhelming aspect to the Internet: it is open to all and available to all; there is no policing and nothing is illegal. And therein lays the problem. The Internet is now a very bad place. It has become an enabler of all that is bad about humanity - ranging from misinformation to spying to viruses to porn to spam to outright theft.

We are a society of laws. But those laws only function where they can be applied and enforced. We can pass all the laws we want to, for example, about spam, but if it comes in from other countries we can't effectively enforce those laws.

The domain of our Internet must match the domain of our laws. Only then can we protect ourselves and our PCs. If the US loses control of the Internet, it's time to seriously consider our own Internet having only limited access to the outside world. These words are heretical to the Internet community and sound like political isolationism. Perhaps they are.

On the other hand, the Internet is a fantastic source of information and more than that it's become a world community. The Internet is the greatest tool for social engineering and communication and social change that the world has ever seen. So, in this time of Thanksgiving, we should think a moment not only about appreciating that, but also about preserving it.

(Bob Seidel is a local computer consultant in the Southport - Oak Island area. You can visit his Website at www.bobseidel.com or e-mail questions or column ideas to him at bsc@bobseidel.com. For specific inquiries, please call Bob Seidel Consulting, LLC at 278-1007.)