Who Owns the Internet? | The nation

What is the Internet and who owns it? These are not simple questions; their borders are muddy. Most people would agree that the Internet encompasses the physical infrastructure and physical networks – the satellites, radio towers, and fiber-optic cables, above ground and underwater, that connect our devices – but you wouldn’t. does it also refer to the content they carry? And how can one meaningfully distinguish between that content and the servers that host it; the software that translates it into readable form; the eyes and ears that consume it; the hands that build and maintain it? US Senator Ted Stevens was once laughed at for describing the Internet as “a series of pipes,” but his metaphor was about as accurate as one could hope for in so few words. The only problem is that it’s hard to tell where the pipes start and end.

In an opening salvo in the third issue of Logic, a small magazine dedicated to the critical evaluation of modern technology, the editors wrote that “The Internet, once viewed as our savior, increasingly looks like a destroyer.” That problem surfaced in December 2017, at the height of the first major Bitcoin bubble, and as Donald Trump’s Federal Communications Commission was pushing to kill off net neutrality. If at the time that declaration seemed timely, the following years have certainly confirmed the foresight of the publishers. According to a 2020 survey by the Knight Foundation, 74% of Americans were “very concerned” about the spread of misinformation online; 77% of respondents reportedly felt that major tech companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple had “too much power.” It’s now widely believed that something has gone terribly wrong with the internet, but as with anything so hard to pin down, the outlines of its fault lines are blurred. Solutions, of course, proved even more elusive.

Internet for the peoplea new book written by Logic editor and co-founder Ben Tarnoff, points to these solutions by working backwards, in the manner of a software engineer, through the maze of inputs and decisions that created the Internet as we know it now. In doing so, Tarnoff traces part of the history of the network, tracing important developments in the service of highlighting overlooked possibilities, those moments when the Internet may not have become so dominated by private industry and may instead have taken a more communal turn. Tarnoff points to the disappointment of eBay’s libertarian founder Pierre Omidyar, for example, detailing the idealistic underpinnings of the systems he developed and their eventual co-optation by the relatively ruthless Amazon. Omidyar once envisioned the Internet as a medium for direct peer-to-peer exchange, but power has repeatedly demonstrated his persistence in finding ways to sneak back and lock up the commons again as they multiply into new dimensions. Tarnoff brings a materialist approach to these stories, humanizing and demystifying some of the internet’s arcane underpinnings and missed opportunities. Yet while Internet for the people he plunges into history, ultimately lives in the present and aspires to the future. Tarnoff’s long-term aspirations are necessarily imprecise, but broadly speaking he aspires to imagine a more socialized network.

TThe book opens with a chase scene worthy of the Fast & Furious franchise, following packets of data along an improbable path from a mobile server installed in California to Norway, England, space, West Virginia, Massachusetts and back at breakneck speed. The high-speed chase took place on November 22, 1977, and the occasion was an American military experiment that served as a proof of concept for a universal computer language to be used as the basis for a network of interoperable computer networks, what we now call the net. The experiment transmitted the data through “multiple networks and multiple mediums — radio, satellite, landline — while arriving at its destination completely intact.” It was, in Tarnoff’s words, “the first real proof” that such a system could actually work. In scenes like these, he brings to life events that might seem like serious episodes in less capable hands.