You Don’t Control the Internet

I wrote this essay for my Engl1B class at SJSU. My opinions and statements here are somewhat inflammatory, dumbed down, and more or less targeted toward a newspaper audience. Given that, I’d like some feedback and appreciate critiques.

The following opinions may not be indicative of my (or anyone’s) personal views on the topic.

You open your web browser and log onto Facebook. You’re online. You check your email and IM your friends. You’re connected. You do a Google search. You’re on the Internet. It’s a vast social experience that you share with countless other people across the globe. It’s a democratic shouting contest of fingertips and eyeballs. The architects of this global super network might say that it belongs to the users, that the Internet is the perfect socialist democracy. But increasingly, this is not the case. The infrastructure, the economy, and the voice of the democratic Internet is controlled by a small proportion of its constituents.

Across the globe there are over a billion people with Internet access today. To get on the Internet you can request service from a local Internet service provider (ISP) and connect a personal computer. Fundamentally, the Internet connects us. It is designed to enable a free point to point exchange of information for its users. So you use your computer to browse websites, check email, or download files created by other Internet users. Many people contribute to this expansive sea of data like drops of rain on the ocean. But who controls it? Ideally you would control your experience. In reality though, our Internet experience is harvested by entrepreneurial entities. Take, for example, Internet service providers. The gatekeepers of the Internet are companies that bring it to the majority of users, the average users. There are exceptions to this, however. There’s public access at the local library, there’s university access, there are cyber cafés, there’s wireless at Togo’s, there are even companies bringing free wireless to the city of San Francisco. There are ways for you to get on the Internet besides the phone company or the cable company. But the people want it in their homes, so in the US, you get it from the phone company.

There is a map of the Internet’s routers (you can find it on the Internet). This map color-codes the routing nodes in the network graph according to the entity that controls them. Vast swaths of red indicate Verizon’s contribution to the network. Giant amoeba like blobs of blue represent AT&T. There’s a huge chunk of yellow Qwest. For millions of households, the Internet is guarded by one of three geographical monopolies. If you want internet access, you have to pay your local phone monopoly. Don’t like it? You can always call the local cable monopoly. These companies are growing their networks with the goal of owning users. In the US, there is no competition, so we pay for it. Don’t like it? Move to Europe. The infrastructure isn’t democratic. The infrastructure is owned by massive mergered mega-corporations. These entities control your access whether they exercise that control or not. Unfortunately, imagining an Internet where one or all of these entities flexes that control is an easy thing to do. Just ask China’s 162 million Internet users. You might try posting this question on the Internet, but they’re inconveniently located behind a great digital firewall of censorship built and maintained by their government ISP. For the vast majority of people, Internet access is leased, by the month, through taxes or utility bills. For the most part though, this hasn’t slowed the uptake in broadband Internet subscriptions. Current estimates record over 56 million broadband Internet subscribers in the US, roughly 31% of broadband subscribers worldwide. So you’re connected; and for the time being, the information is still free. Right?

Once you’re online, you have access to ever increasing petabytes (millions of billions of bytes) of data. Up to the minute news, world wide entertainment, personal weblogs or “blogs”, community bulletin boards, chat rooms, videos, photos, games, books, anything. Since everyone contributes, there is, more than likely, someone contributing content that appeals to your shared interests. The knitting group in another state welcomes you to their social circle. The Warcraft clan in Asia welcomes you to their chat channel. People sharing your view point, people opposing your view point, they’re all there shouting. You have unlimited destinations go to visit. Embark. Go. Surf the web. Where do you go? First stop: Google. There are billions of places to visit on the Internet and 66% of the time people start their search at http://google.com. Of course, there are alternatives. Yahoo garners 19% of Internet search, MSN 9%, and Ask is growing fast with 3%. Aside from this 98% though, there are countless other alternatives; you can use one of these search engines to find one. Billions of destinations, four ways to get there. Of course, you always have options, but there is a trend here.

According to Paul Querna, Bloglines Engineer at IAC’s Ask.com, “Market forces push for consolidation.” This applies to bloggers and blog advertising, but can be extrapolated out to include Internet technologies as a whole. The latest wave of Internet technology applications is called “Web 2.0” (pronounced “web two point oh”). There are dozens if not hundreds of startup companies utilizing the latest web browser technology to create all manner of useful, attention grabbing, interactive applications. And one after another, they are being bought. In “Who owns What: Media v2.0,” Amy Webb shows us that the majority of high-traffic Web 2.0 destinations have been bought or acquired by one of 6 Internet media companies: Google, Yahoo, IAC, AOL, Microsoft, and News Corp. In the last decade, Google has assimilated more than 40 web properties, Yahoo more than 20, IAC, AOL, and Microsoft over a dozen each, and News Corp 5 within the last two years alone. These web properties are massive destinations, some boasting tens, even hundreds, of millions of users. There are exceptions of course. Independent social networking site Facebook has ballooned its user base to over 42 million users as of September 2007. Guarded by stalwart idealism, Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has resisted the consolidation trend and has cultivated Facebook as a primary Internet destination in its own right. But, behind it all, there is motivation. These mergers are taking place for large sums of money because large sums of money are at stake. So you’re on the internet and you’re looking at interesting content published by myriad other Internet users. Likely, you’re probably looking at one of these bought-up Web 2.0 properties too. Take a step back and look at everything as a whole and you start to see patterns develop.

In mathematics there are distribution models called Power Laws. These define relationships between competing entities in natural phenomena and can be used to model them to a high degree of accuracy. The Pareto Principle (also called the 80-20 rule) is once such distribution model that states: for events 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. This Power Law is useful for modeling relationships in economics. The Internet economy is based on eyeballs. Your eyeballs, your personal attention rather, is worth money. There are two kinds of currency on the Internet: users and content. Content, interesting content, buys Users. Proprietors of interesting content (content providers) attract interested consumers on a scale almost impossible to imagine. They use interesting content to generate their product, the users. The cornerstone of Internet monetization is advertising. Advertising brings the real world currency and funds the Internet economy. With real world currency, advertisers buy users on a massive scale from content providers. All those interesting destinations you found on the Internet are directly accessible. So, even though massive search engines fight it out to be the first destination, they are not the last destination. This is an opportunity for Bloggers (blog publishers) to become Internet entrepreneurs. You may contribute new, periodical, possibly interesting content to the Internet, but you don’t have an audience. Now multiply by millions of people and you’ve just described the “blogosphere”. All the Internet currency, the content, in the blogosphere is free to link, it’s free to copy. So to generate interesting content on a profitable scale, all you have to do is find it, rehash it, and re-post it at a furious rate in your destination. This is the A-List blogger. If you graph the distribution of most-linked blogs, you’ll see that 20% of the bloggers garner 80% of the incoming links. The distribution of links in blogs can be modeled by a Power Law almost perfectly. A-List bloggers read hundreds of data feeds per day. They find the content that will uniquely appeal to their user demographic, comment on it, and post it. Photos, Music, AP news stories, events, discoveries, culture, wisdom. The Voice of the Internet. They control interesting content, deliver it, and trade you to the advertisers for real money.

Getting yourself on the internet was easy. It’s an experience that has become increasingly easy to accomplish for a great many people. You request service from an ISP. You find your destination through a portal or search engine. You read interesting content rehashed by an A-List blogger. Breathe easy, someone new controls all the services you used today, but in all probability it isn’t you.

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