Who Owns the Internet?


The Internet, once an obscure playground of hardcore nerds with newsgroup subscriptions, is now something of a life force for much of the world. It’s more responsible for shrinking the globe than anything that came before it, and has revolutionized every part of our lives—from convincing ourselves we’re dying of rare diseases to spying on our exes.

Obviously, the Internet is worldwide, but who owns it? Does the United States, who started it, have control? Does Al Gore get royalties every time someone types in a URL? (For the record, Gore’s senate committee did fund the research network that eventually became the Internet.)

Exactly who is in charge of the whole deal, anyway?

What It Actually Is

The Internet is a vast, interconnected, worldwide network of computers that all speak the same language because of one agreed-upon set of rules called “protocols.” The way computer networks communicate with each other is across a backbone infrastructure that transmits signals via routers, cables, and Network Access Points (NAPs.) It is not unlike the interstate highway system– just much, much more complex. It’s a still-growing tangle of connections that reaches some of the remotest places on earth—you can totally send email from your smart phone if you happen to be standing on the summit of Mt. Everest.

Every computer that accesses the Internet is part of it, and every computer knows the protocols in order to connect to the rest of the Internet. So, who decides the protocols and gets to be in charge of things like domain names?

The Backbone

Without its backbone—the physical network of cables and routers that carry traffic between computer systems—the Internet wouldn’t exist. The backbone isn’t owned or operated by just one group, though. Each of the top-level Internet Service Providers, such as NTT, Global Crossing, and Level 3, control a piece of the backbone. They connect to each other either through direct connections or, for smaller networks, Internet Exchange Points (IXPs.)  IXPs are run by several companies and non-profit organizations.

Despite all the companies who have their fingers on the backbone, the system works cooperatively. The different companies and organizations play nicely together because otherwise they would lose access to Internet traffic, and therefore lose profit. There is one aspect to the Internet, however, that only one entity can be in charge of, and that’s the domain name system.

The Name Boss

Domain names, such as Avvo.com, are equivalent to addresses on the Internet—without them, we wouldn’t be able to find videos of babies dancing, or send each other email and LOLcats. Only one organization is allowed to be in charge of these name addresses, though, and, despite our desire to be the boss of everything, it isn’t the United States.

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) is the big boss of domain names, allowing downstream registrars to sell domain names on their behalf. ICANN is a private, non-profit company that links IP addresses to domain names for all the Internet connections in the world. Although it might seem like ICANN holds a lot of power, it is actually an industry group made up of many countries—the U.N. of names and addresses, if you will.

The Protocols Bosses

Of course, someone has to decide on the rules that allow all the computers and networks to talk to each other, or we’re all doomed to empty lives devoid of celebrity Twitter feeds. Luckily, the Internet is an epic example of playing nice in the sandbox, and somehow, several organizations are able to work together to manage the protocols as the Internet grows and changes. These organizations include The Internet Society (ISOC), which develops Internet standards, policies, and education; Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which is an open, international group with several working groups to address specific topics like security; The Internet Architecture Board (IAB), an IETF group that oversees the design of protocols and standards; and ICANN.

The bottom line is that the Internet is a giant, evolving, cooperative project owned by no single person, company, or country, and managed by many worldwide organizations. So the next time you order a pizza online, Skype with that friend you met through your cousin’s coworker on Facebook, or download a new Linkin Park song, send a silent thank-you to all of the smart, cooperative people who somehow make it work.