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The Internet - an introduction

Jump to: Home, Internet Myths, Digital Identity, Information & Disinfomation

Tereza Horejsova and Stephanie Borg Psaila - DiploFoundation

I. What is the Internet, and how is it managed?

1. A journey through time: Welcome on board!

How would you draw a picture of the Internet? You might draw a computer, or a device such as a mobile phone or tablet. Perhaps, you would imagine a number of computers connected to one another, illustrated by random interconnected lines. This is how the Internet looks like for most of us, the users. If you think about the technology behind the Internet, that image is correct. The Internet is a global network that connects computers and devices, and each of us who use the Internet. It’s also everywhere: from our homes and offices (think also kitchen appliances and vehicles!), to open spaces, government offices, and public transport.   But to understand the full picture, we need to look beyond the network, and ask: what is this network able to do? Who is behind it, and does anyone own the Internet? Do we need to worry about how the Internet is managed, and can we trust the system? Who will ensure that the Internet is not used to harm us? How does it benefit society the most? In what ways has it made our lives easier? Are our lives becoming less private with the Internet, or is it actually making life more private and anonymous? What about the impact of the Internet on the economy and employment? Will technology make our jobs redundant? Also, are we addicted to the Internet, or is this really the most useful tool for so many aspects of our everyday life? And what about our identity online? What will it allow us to do that I cannot do today, and how safe is it from criminals? What follows will help us address these questions and many more. We are about to embark on a journey which will take us to the core of our digital past, back to the present, and into the future. We will also focus on how the Internet is managed, all about digital identities, and the modern challenge of information on the Internet and whether we can or should trust it. Welcome on board!

2. Understanding the ‘Internet’

The Internet has been around for over 50 years

The Internet was invented by scientists who wanted to link their computers to one another for military purposes. Scientists soon began to discover the broader potential of this early project, and found a way for computers to share information, similar to what the telegraph or phone system did in the years before. Some say that the original idea was for this network to establish a secure and resilient military communications network. Over time, the ‘decentralised’ nature of the network became obvious: if one part of the network breaks down, the rest can still continue to function.  

A network of networks

So how was the network built? Linking the computers was relatively easy: Cables would do the job. Connecting a computer in one continent to another computer in another continent, with an ocean in between, was also straightforward. Cables were installed underwater at the deepest level, which is by the way the system we still use today. For information to pass through the cables, scientists had to invent a computer language, that would break the information into small pieces, send it across cables, and assemble it back once it reaches its destination. How do the small pieces know where to go? Scientists also invented an address book for the Internet, which made it easy for us to direct the information to a specific e-mail address, or to request our browsers to take us to a specific website. The infrastructure of the Internet basically runs on three levels as the following image displays:

  1. The telecommunications infrastructure (bottom) or the physical layer through which Internet traffic flows (cables and lines, modems and routers);
  2. Internet protocols (IP) (middle) or the transport layer, including the domain name system (DNS - the address book), the root zone, and technical and web standards (software that make internet works), which allow the information to find its way.
  3. Content and applications (top) or the application layer. These are for example the websites and services you use on the Internet, your social media or video platform, etc.

How the Internet continued to evolve

Thanks to the network, the language, and the address book, we are today able to use social media, communicate through e-mails and other platforms, look for information, listen to music, watch videos, purchase goods and services… Source: The Internet has changed and improved the work of major industries, such as manufacturing, healthcare, and transportation, as well as the public administration and governments. Who would have thought back in 1969, that the scientific network which connected two universities, would become a global network used by billions of people? The Internet became popular - the way we know it - in the 1990s, when the generation at the time started connecting through dial-up modems, and accessing online marketplaces like Amazon. With the first Internet search engines, like Yahoo and eventually Google, information was at our fingertips. Social media has revolutionised the way we communicate even more. Today, for most of us, the Internet is easy to access and increasingly part of the environment itself.

What is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web?

The terms Internet and World Wide Web (www) are sometimes used interchangeably. In reality, they mean different things. The Internet is the infrastructure which connects everything together; the www is just one of many Internet applications that we use to communicate, access websites, etc. Think of the postal system: the Internet is similar to the network of post offices and letter boxes, while the www is similar to the letters and parcels we send via the system. At the same time, the www is probably the application that made Internet use grow exponentially

A case of fifty-fifty: Why is only half the world online?

Half of the world’s population takes the Internet for granted. They check e-mails, use messaging platforms, go on social media, buy products and services and browse their favourite websites as casually  as they wash their hands or eat lunch. Yet, the other half still does not have access to the Internet, and therefore, are not cannot reap the same benefits. Licence: Creative Commons by-sa-3.0 In a number of developing countries, the basic infrastructure – such as electricity – is simply not there. Since countries’ resources may be extremely limited, governments may be more inclined to spend the little available resources to fixing issues such as food scarcity, or poverty. In several countries where an Internet connection is available, the cost of the service may be incredibly steep (sometimes costing a month’s salary or more). As investments to build the infrastructure in these regions are high and legal framework may be complicated, companies are not inclined to lower the costs of access and governments may not be in a position to invest the needed sums.

Are there other limitations, besides infrastructure and costs?

While affordability is the main challenge, it may be surprising to learn that some people are unable to find content in the language that they understand. Since its early days, the Internet has been a predominantly English-language medium. According to some statistics, more than half of the content on the www is in English, which is very high considering that only one in five of the world’s population speaks English. Compare this to Chinese, the world’s most spoken language: less than 2% of the www is in Chinese. And while some may understand one or more of the most common languages used on the www, disadvantaged groups may find it too difficult to learn how to use the Internet.

3. Who makes the Internet work?

Throughout the history of the Internet, a long list of people contributed to its development, including:

  • scientists and engineers (the technical community);
  • software and hardware manufacturers and Internet service providers (the private sector);
  • governments and international organisations;
  • academics and research institutions; and
  • civil society.

They did so in various ways, such as building networks, creating software, selling products, developing and applying rules from binding laws to private standards, defending the rights of users, and generally by developing ways of working together.

A major investment

Many countries and companies have invested substantial amounts of money to develop the global network, including all the pieces of hardware and software involved in the process. In fact, the Internet industry includes telecommunication companies, online marketplaces, manufacturers of computer chips, software developers, and computer engineers – all of whom play a role in developing a part of the Internet that enables users to go online and use social media, or purchase a product.

Who does what?

Yet, operating the Internet and developing new technology involves more than just those who invest in it. In brief, here is who’s involved:

  • Governments create, or adapt rules, to allow e-commerce to grow, to provide the private sector with enough incentives to invest, and to regulate other areas of the Internet. Some governments use the Internet to launch cyberattacks, or to suppress those who complain about their governments’ behaviour.
  • Civil society speaks on behalf of the users, and so, civil society organisations alert governments and companies of any wrong-doing that we may be suffering from, or raise the alarm when user rights need to be protected. Some organisations are more active than others.
  • Through research, academics and their institutions contribute by looking at issues beyond the commercial aspects. They reflect on the theory behind how everything works, and in many cases, apply this to real scenarios.
  • The technical community and the private sector push the boundaries of what technology can do for us today and tomorrow, and in the next 5, 15, or 50 years (think artificial intelligence or virtual reality). Sometimes, the rush to launch new products gets so intense, that other aspects, such as the possibility of products being hacked, is not tested enough (and that’s why we are often asked by the occasional pop-up window to install a security update, or a patch...).  

This complex interplay is how the world has ensured that the Internet runs smoothly, that it helps humanity communicate more quickly, and improve so many aspects of everyday life. Each of the involved parties, also called ‘stakeholders’ has a role to play; each stakeholder also has an interest in furthering specific aims, which adds to the complexity. The fact that many of us are able to access the Internet every day in a relatively smooth way is not to say that the Internet is devoid of challenges. Like any other technology, the Internet can be used for good purposes, and bad ones.

4. Is the Internet good or bad? Identifying some of the main problems

Uses and misuses

In the offline world, many of the things we use in our everyday life can be used by wrong-doers. For instance, we normally use money to buy goods and services. But money can be used to exploit others. Money can get stolen. Digital machinery can be broken into and can be taken over by others. We use vehicles to transport us from one place to another, but vehicles can also be used to stage robberies, or to inflict damage. Similarly, a computer can be used by children to learn new things, but could also be used by criminals to make inappropriate contact with children (not every risk manifests itself, in reality). Social media is generally used for communicating with family and friends, but can also be used to spread hatred and harass others. Do you recall how the Internet evolved? Well, once the Internet became broadly available, a host of issues started appearing. Today, for instance, we are asking questions such as: Will the technologies we are developing now, such as artificial intelligence, change the face of humanity in 50 years’ time? In the framework of the Global Citizens’ Dialogue on the future of Internet we will tackle two topics in more detail, which are at the center of the decision making process and will highly benefit from the articulated voices of citizens of the world. These issues are:   Digital Identity: Tackling the question “who am I” when we are online. Defining our digital identities has a huge impact on what we are allowed to do when we use the internet. Information and trust on the Internet: Tackling the questions: “what information are we accessing, can we trust it, and what does it mean when the information is false? Before diving in these topics, we need to ask one more critical question: Who is in charge?

5. How decisions are taken

Why governance matters

Governance can be simply defined as a process of taking decisions. It has two components: Who is involved, and what is everyone’s role. When talking about who is behind the Internet and who makes the decisions (a branch of study called ‘Internet governance’), we therefore have to understand who is playing which role. Why is this important? Because the decisions that are taken have an impact on us all, and on future generations.

Internet governance and its evolution

As a scientific project, the early days of the Internet were driven by an aspiration to communicate. One of the most notable differences between then and now, is that back in those days, many challenges were not evident and were not big problems. With the increased popularity of the Internet came a host of issues. Companies, the technical community, and academic institutions were the first to get together and discuss them. The voice of civil society grew stronger, and governments - who had funded the creation of the earlier projects - also joined the other actors to tackle these issues. The actors all came together during the so-called World Summit on the Information Society (between 2003 and 2005). During this meeting, the actors agreed to (a) to initiate a global forum, called the Internet Governance Forum, which meets every year to discuss pressing policy issues; (b) on a set of commitments, called the Tunis Agenda, which are reviewed every year.

Adding complexity to the mix

There is no doubt that today’s Internet problems are complex and intertwined. For instance, in order to protect our consumer’s rights, there needs to be legislation which holds companies accountable for any breaches. Governments need to be careful that while protecting consumers, they are not stifling the efforts of companies to invest in new infrastructure and technology, as this drives development forward. Companies need to be able to make profits, but this should not come at the expense of our rights to privacy, or the safety of our personal data. If our data is stolen by criminals, law enforcement needs tools to be able to track down criminals in whichever country they are, and to bring them to justice, while respecting our privacy and the privacy of our communications. Similarly, improving the security of the Internet requires tough laws, well-equipped law enforcement agencies, a stronger corporate culture of responsibility, and campaigns to educate users on how to protect themselves and behave responsibly online. If we only focus on one aspect, such as the legal part, we are missing out on other areas which are also part of the solution. There is also a question of scale: Many players are willing to tackle the issues globally, knowing that global solutions help drive progress forward. This is not easy: while the government of a country decides on policies which apply nationally, regional and global policies require broad agreement.

Mechanisms, and lots of them

Stakeholders use various tools to tackle, or govern, Internet issues, and to shape the future development of the Internet. They consult other players, enact rules, use enormous amounts of data to help them make sound decisions, and draw on experiences from other areas of everyday life which are governed in one way or another. Since Internet issues are very complex, decisions are sometimes difficult to reach. Governments may be reluctant to consult other players, since they often feel they hold the main responsibility for governing the Internet. Companies sometimes use the investment argument to counter any attempts by governments to create new regulations. Civil society sometimes fails to understand that companies have a bottom line, that of making money. The technical community sometimes backs the companies’ arguments simply because many “techies” are employed by big companies. And academia’s proposals and suggestions are sometimes difficult to implement (though they may look great on paper). Over the years, players created many solutions to help overcome these challenges. Solutions are often driven by values and ideals, such as the need to respect human rights, or the need to make the Internet and technology accessible to everyone. Some of these ideals can be found in documents, or conventions, agreed to by governments around the world. Others are developed by international organisations and civil society organisations, based on deep insights into what has worked and what has not. In brief, many frameworks, models, and mechanisms already exist to tackle the main problems. And remember also: players have their own needs and interests, which are often ‘under the bonnet’.Yet, this is not enough. Mechanisms need to be updated or improved. Overlapping mechanisms need to be sorted out. This is why the UN’s Secretary General last year asked a group of experts (called the High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation - the latest of a series of UN commissions) to suggest how to improve this whole landscape of solutions, action plans, mechanisms, and the rest. Players are now discussing these suggestions, which should help improve drastically how certain issues are tackled.

From Information to Decision

When looking at the role of the different stakeholders in the process it is useful to keep the following scale in mind:

No involvement No role to play in the process
Information Stakeholder is being kept informed of the process and/or decisions taken.
Consultation Stakeholder can inform the process by feeding its views. But it has no deciding power.
Concertation Stakeholder can take part in the discussion directly but one stakeholder has the final word.
Co-decision All stakeholders find an agreement together.
Decision Stakeholder should have the final word (even if it informs / consults / concert other stakeholder)

In the frame of internet governance, the different stakeholders take different roles depending on the exact topic. We will come back to these roles when addressing the question of Digital Identity and Information.

What about the citizens?

You now have an overview on the Internet’s functioning, its actors, theirs roles and the different models of governance. Everybody is aware of the complexity of those subjects. One sure thing: How the Internet is ruled, affects everyone, including those who are not yet connected, and even the generations of the future. This is why citizens should have a say and why we, as organizers, coordinators and partners of the Global Citizens’ Dialogue on the Future of Internet are so glad to have you on board.