Who Controls the Internet?


This post is cross-posted from my joint newsletter with Ranjan Roy, The Margins. Please check it out, and consider subscribing.

If you asked a ton of people “Which country controls the internet?”, what would the answer be? Most people, I am guessing, would first balk at the question but then probably say United States. 🇺🇸!🇺🇸!🇺🇸!

There’s a bunch of reasons to think that way. On the surface, most companies that people associate with “Internet” are concentrated to a tiny, earthquake-prone region in the US. It’s not that Tim Cook is dying to do Trump’s bidding, but there’s some truth to the idea that if Uncle Sam really flexed his muscles, say by sending some people with guns over to Silicon Valley, he could get all those folks to cooperate. My co-host Ranjan thinks this is a bit extreme, but then, I am Turkish and he’s not.

ICANN Headquarters, where TLDs are Born

But there’s also some technical realities too. For example, ICANN, the non-profit that controls the DNS scheme is based in California. To gloss over a ton of technical details, that gives ICANN the ability to own the relationship between human-readable addresses (like typing in TheFacebook.com in your browser) and the IP addresses, that refer to the servers. Now, ICANN has a tumultuous relationshipto say the least, with the US government and every few years, there are calls to make ICANN’s authority be moved to an international body. To this day, though, the organization remains in sunny Southern California, only occasionally being thrusted to headlines when it tries to raise some revenues by introducing questionable Top-Level Domains, like .amazon

“I come from Cyberspace”

Yet, there’s also the globally shared sensation that internet is somewhat above the regular, day-to-day, international drama. It’s all digital, global, connected, and you know, good. It was designed to be supranational, in some sense, rather than international. It rises above those pesky, arbitrary notions of land borders, regional disputes, sectarian differences. Internet is just there, encompassing us all, like the air we breathe.

Not my words! Take it from John Perry Barlow. The iconic figure once penned a fiery manifesto at a World Economic Forum, after being struck by the arrogance and the dismissal of the world leaders of the incoming cyber revolution. He even called it, provocatively, “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” and boy did he not mince his words:

We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.

Your legal concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context do not apply to us. They are all based on matter, and there is no matter here.

Barlow later backed those claims down a bit, but the libertarian thrust of his manifesto never really died down. We are in this beautiful mess, with Facebook accidentally kindling genocides, YouTube promoting anti-vaccination content and god-knows-what-else to kids, partly due to this line of thinking.

Enter Russia

Yet, the borders seem to persist. The internet recently was abuzz with the news that Russia is now setting up a new perimeter for its own internets. 

Here’s Financial Times:

The Balkanisation of the internet has entered another phase, with Russian president Vladimir Putin signing a law to give the country a “sovereign internet” that the Kremlin will be able to disconnect from the global web.

The move was expected and follows other attempts to cut off users from the world wide web. There’s been the Great Firewall of China, an Iranian move to isolate itself, and the recent temporary blocking of Facebook and other social networks by the Sri Lankan government after the Easter Sunday bombings.

Balkanization is not a technical term, but it largely refers to dividing the “global internet” into more local internets (or intranets, kind of arbitrary here) that are controlled by individual countries. Of course, the fact that Russia is the one doing it makes it extra-uneasy, given the country is hardly a bastion of free expression. This feels bad, as in not done in good-faith, at least to my Western ears. You don’t have to be a technolibertarian to think Balkanization is not ideal.

But, here’s an idea: ask the question that I posed in the beginning “Which country controls the internet?” to someone in China. I don’t know the answer, but the Chinese friends I’ve asked said “Well, people don’t really think of US internet companies”, so that’s sort of an answer. 

Is Chinese internet the same as our (?) Western internet? If not, what’s that relationship? Maybe it’s a subset, or maybe a federated one that occasionally talks to ours, on Chinese government’s terms? We really do not have good models to fully understand them yet.

Even if they did know of the American internet (bear with me here), it’s not even clear they would even care at this point:

Two economists from Peking University and Stanford University concluded this year, after an 18-month survey, that Chinese college students were indifferent about having access to uncensored, politically sensitive information. They had given nearly 1,000 students at two Beijing universities free tools to bypass censorship, but found that nearly half the students did not use them. Among those who did, almost none spent time browsing foreign news websites that were blocked.

As much as we’d like to believe that Internet (internet?) is not just a set of technologies, but in fact a manifestation of the notion that “information wants to be free”, a force of nature that just cannot be held back due to its sheer size and complexity, China seems to be doing fine with their firewall.

In fact, not just fine, but China’s internet protectionism has not just kept Chinese dissidents at bay, but it also allowed the country to nurture and develop its own technology giants such as Tencent, Baidu, and more recently (more on this soon!) Bytedance. It’s hard to argue, if you are a Chinese investor, that the Great Firewall has not been a good thing. 

China decided to carve out its own internet from the greater network, yet it’s still the same internet, running on the same technologies. But that’s not the only way you could have your internet. If you are especially enterprising, have a tendency to generally do things in your own way, could also just build an entire internet, or something that resembles it, by inventing a whole set of new technologies.

Comme ci comme ça

Take a look at France, where I temporarily live. Unbeknownst to many in the United States, this beautiful land of wine and cheese had its own “internet”, way before Al Gore invented it across the Atlantic. Allow me to introduce you to Minitel.

Essentially, an end-to-end system with its own terminals, Minitel allowed people all over France to communicate, do commerce, and generally have a good time. You could set up a “website”, browse other sites, chat with people, and of course, get their rocks off. The closest analogue I can think of in the US would be the Bloomberg terminals, which like Minitel, runs on its own “parallel” internet, with its own protocols, own terminals.

Minitel enjoyed some limited success, but in the end it was shut down in 2012, and it remains as one of those ahead-of-its-time technologies that historians fawn over, and provide more fodder for my French friends to assert their arrogance. But, it’s also an interesting experiment in a country developing, it’s own set of technologies from the ground up, and building a national network that works well.

And some of those tendencies stick around. Just a few weeks ago, French government announced they would be switching to Tchat, an internally developed instant-messaging system based on Matrix protocol. The switch did not go swimmingly (French), with embarrassing security mishaps allowing strangers to enter government chat rooms. Yet, you can imagine French intelligence not being too psyched with Macron using Telegram (which I bet he still does). And there’s also Qwant, a European search engine that parts of French administration is encouraged to use.

It’s a time-tested tradition to make fun of French eccentricities. Yet, still in the United States, you can’t read a single newspaper without hearing about Huawei and its ascension to being the 5G backbone provider of choice around the world. Can you say in the same breath that internet is truly global, and then argue that the nationality of the technology provider is a deal-breaker?

Mind in Cyberspace

Maybe, the answer is “yes”. The same United States recently forced Grindr, a dating app popular with the gay community, to divest its Chinese ownership, over fears the sensitive data it has over American citizens could become a liability. I talk often here on data as liability, but the the issue here is larger than that.

Whether we like it or not, some notion of borders, along with national sovereignty and protections seem to be slowly making their way to the digital space.

Some companies will surely be more equipped to handle these new challenges than others. For example, you can even imagine Facebook’s new push towards end-to-end encryption in this sense a bit. While E2E is most likely a hedge against anti-trust regulation and a deference tool against surveillance, it also has the nice feature of turning data into amorphous blobs that you can’t really meaningfully “manage. In other words, you either allow Facebook entirely in your country, or not.

Remember DVD regions?

Some of the previous attempts, such as region locks on DVDs, to borders on the cyberspace have fallen flat. The long-term effects of GDPR is yet to be seen, but it also did have a slight Balkanizing effect where some US firms like LATimes and Instapaper simply stopping to operate in Europe . On the other hand, if California has its way with its GDPR-lite, and there is no federal equivalent, things could get even more hairy in US.

What’s certain now, is that, the old rules of the internet are being rewritten right now. And whether we like it or not, the borderless, stateless, cyberspace is not going to be happening anytime soon.

What I’m Reading

The 5 Years That Changed Dating: A wonderful piece about how Tinder both changed dating, and not, for the better, and for the worse. The many anecdotes about compartmentalization of romance and how apps like Tinder both foster and hamper that dynamic is fascinating.

People used to meet people at work, but my God, it doesn’t seem like the best idea to do that right now,” Finkel says. “For better or worse, people are setting up firmer boundaries between the personal and the professional. And we’re figuring all that stuff out, but it’s kind of a tumultuous time.”

A Conspiracy To Kill IE6An early YouTube engineer talks about how a few renegade engineers started a skunkworks effort to wean people off of Internet Explorer 6, without any approval from the Google corporate machine. A fascinating play-by-play, but also goes to show how much power a few engineer can wield.

The code was designed to be as subtle as possible so that it would not catch the attention of anyone monitoring our checkins. Nobody except the web development team used IE6 with any real regularity, so we knew it was unlikely anyone would notice our banner appear in the staging environment. We even delayed having the text translated for international users so that a translator asking for additional context could not inadvertently surface what we were doing.