Monday, February 15, 2010

Who Controls the Internet?

A topic that has come up quite a bit in Communication and Cyberspace, the class blog, and the class discussion yesterday is that of who controls the internet. It is definitely an interesting question, as the internet was designed to be a decentralized system. People can access it from anywhere and pull up sites located on servers around the world. At the risk of sounding cliche, the web truly is worldwide, which makes the question of authority a tricky one.

There are some cases when the government can go as far as to censor the internet. It was mentioned in class that China blocks a lot of information. I remember a few years back The Best Page in the Universe was blocked in the United Arab Emirates. We even questioned if what we see is truly how the internet was meant to be seen.

The question of punishment is another aspect of this discussion. There are most definitely cybercrimes, and they seem to be persecuted by the respective countries of origin. This is also because a lot of these crimes acts that are illegal regardless of whether or not they are online - identity theft, child pornography, piracy, etc. So in this case local authorities will generally take on these issues. But what I find interesting is how usage terms have evolved over time. Initially the internet was a vast, unregulated space, but eventually as ISPs began to evolve, they started creating Terms of Service (as AOL calls them, for example) for their users. Users who violated these terms would lose their accounts after a number of offenses. So for a decent amount of time service providers regulated the conduct of users to an extent (provided of course they were turned in). Universities also have agreements that their students must abide by, although these are also loosely regulated.

What I find to be most interesting though is how the whole idea of terms of service and the burden of enforcement has shifted from control by the respective providers to control by the actual sites themselves. Now that so many sites require registration or even subscriptions, they are able to create their own terms that their users must abide by. If I make a string of offensive blog posts, Blogger will kick me off. If I spam on Facebook, I will lose my account. If Gmail finds me in violation of their services, I will have my account cancelled. Granted it's very easy to make new accounts and it's not necessarily like losing access to the internet like it would be when you violated AOL's terms, but it almost seems that it's up to the sites themselves (or the hosting services if you are a webmaster) to regulate things on the most immediate scale.


  1. No government or corporation controls the internet. The internet consists of millions of computer nodes throughout the world. However, governments do have the power to limit or completely ban Internet services. For example, Iran and Pakistan tried to ban certain Internet services including YouTube for showing political protests against the government.

  2. Great point about the shift in onus and responsibility. Terms of service may be the fine print that no one reads, but when Facebook changed theirs last year, seeming to claim ownership of everything you posted on their site, including your profile and everything you like to, and that in perpetuity, it caused a big stir and they had to back down and change them again soon after. Ultimately, there is a tension between the freedom of the organization/site to do what they want, including banning and censoring, and the freedom of the individual.