Who Owns the Internet?

In a way, everyone owns it, and nobody owns it.

The Internet is a collection of all networked computers, so the computer parts of it are individually owned.

However, there are essential parts of the Internet which keep the data flowing. For example, there is a DNS systems that resolved domain names into IP addresses; the 13 servers which make up this system are run (for free) by a variety of organizations, including corporations, universities, and government agencies.

Then there is the Internet backbone, fiber-optic trunk lines which carry massive amounts of data. These are generally built and owned by telecommunications companies ("telecoms"). The backbone provides general transmission of data over long distances.

The telecoms also control something called the last mile, the path from the main body of the Internet to the end user, using telephone lines, smaller fiber-optic lines, cable television coaxial cables, and cellular or other wireless connections.

As you can see, the telecoms "own" and control a significant portion of the Internet infrastructure. These are for-profit companies—and they want to make moe of a profit.

Net Neutrality

Since its beginning, the Internet has worked under a principle that all data on the network is equal. It does not matter who sent it, what protocol is used, or what applications are involved; all data gets sent over the same lines at the same speeds and it treated the same way.

For example, if you send email, join an audio chat, or watch video over the Internet, all the data gets sent in the same way. If you are using Firefox, Safari, Chrome, Opera, or Internet Explorer, all the data is treated the same.

According to the basic rules of net neutrality, the telecoms are not allowed to speed up data for some sites and not for others; they are not allowed to change the quality of service depending on what programs are being used; and they are not allowed to censor or block any type of communication.

The telecoms, however, don't like this. They want to get rid of net neutrality because it prevents them from generating more income or controlling the networks in ways that they prefer.

The Fast Lane

One aspect of net neutrality is speed. All data gets sent at the same speed, no matter what the data is, or how much there is.

Telecoms have a problem with this, because people like to transmit large amounts of data. A conspicuous type of user is video providers, such as Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon. They send huge amounts of data over the Internet. This can burden the system, creating the need to upgrade Internet backbones and other pathways to higher speeds, and/or to carry more data (bandwidth).

The Telecoms saw an opportunity: they could divide data transmission into two categories, a "fast lane" and a "slow lane." The fast lane would get all of the best resources; the slow lane would not. The Telecoms would then charge a higher price for the "fast lane."

Naturally, the companies which are large-scale users of Internet bandwidth objected—as did many individual Internet users. If the Telecoms started charging more for higher speeds, there would be two major effects.

First, web sites that did not pay the extra fees would slow down, and as a result, most web sites would load more slowly, degrading the quality of Internet use.

Second, companies paying for the fast lane would have to increase advertising or charge more money for their services in order to pay for the extra charges.

In short, the fast lane would be great for the Telecoms—they could reduce the amount of resources they had to use, and they could make a great deal more money. However, the effects would be bad for everyone else: most of the Internet would slow down, and the parts that didn't would cost more.

Although the American government was initially set to approve this, a great deal of protest encouraged the Obama administration to preserve net neutrality rules. Republicans have been opposed to this, however, citing greater regulation as being harmful to business; it is possible that the new Trump administration may change the rules to something the Telecoms would prefer more.


Throttling refers to the practice of slowing down an Internet connection, or slowing a specific type of data over a connection.

About ten years ago, BitTorrent was being used more and more. People used the protocol to upload, download, and share large amounts of data, especially movies, TV shows, music, and software. This traffic used a lot of bandwidth, sometimes hurting overall connections speeds at peak times.

Some U.S. Telecoms reacted by throttling BitTorrent traffic. At least one Telecom was caught interefering with BitTorrent traffic in particular, making it more difficult to use the protocol. This went against Internet net neautrality rules. The Telecom was caught, and agreed to stop.

More recently, Telecoms which want "fast lane" permission have been caught throttling video services like Netflix—and even Netflix itself was caught throttling its own video because some customers could not afford to pay for enough data at higher speeds.

Some customer complain that they are being throttled for using speeds and bandwidth that they have already paid for—that "power users" are identified by the ISPs, and have their traffic slowed so they will not be a burden on the system.

Dangers of Dropping Network Neutrality

Beyond simply blocking more expensive "fast lanes" and throttling, network neutrality prevents a much more dangerous trend: censorship. Under net neutrality rules, no carrier is allowed to block or hinder any legal traffic.

If net neutrality rules change, however, users could find themselves with much less freedom.

For example, Telecoms could decide what programs users are allowed to use on the Internet. A Telecom could potentially block or slow traffic from certain browsers, audio & video chat programs, or even gameplay.

Currently, Telecoms want to throttle to hold down those who "overuse" the networks. However, they could also use throttling for profit. If a Telecom owned a chat program, they could slow down traffic from other programs, and speed up their own. If a certain game company or video provider paid the Telecom, the Telecom might block other games or videos.

Even worse, Telecoms could begin to censor expression. They could search traffic for words, images, or ideas they disapprove of (anything criticizing them, or advocating for laws they don't like) and slow or simply shut down whatever they wish. Some countries already do this; China is famous for it. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) blocks Skype, for example.

While parts of the Internet are owned by private companies demanding a profit, the Internet itself is considered a public resource, one in which fairness and objectivity must be maintained. Preserving net neutrality is in the interests of most Internet users. Telecoms, however, disagree, and claim that in order to provide better and faster service, they must be allowed to discriminate. Most Internet users do not approve, however, feeling that such control could harm Internet users, taking away one of the most valuable aspects of the Internet: a fair, egalitarian resource that benefits everyone and discriminate against no one.

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