Internet for the People Chapter 2 Summary

  • A backbone is a set of routes that interconnects networks, providing a path for the exchange of information. The internet backbone is the set of routes that exist between core computer networks and core routers of the internet.

  • The internet has changed massively since its inception in the 1990s. Whereas it was once US centered, it is now properly international, with major sites of traffic in the United States, Europe and China.

  • Despite its growth, the ownership model of the internet’s backbone is more or less the same. In the 90s, 5 US companies owned the US backbone; today 6 do.

  • The incumbents (those owning the backbone) can easily protect their position. They often cooperate with other backbone owners, by letting other backbone owners connect for free, but they charge smaller providers for carrying traffic. All such agreements are unregulated and usually done behind closed doors with the help of nondisclosure agreements. This ensures that the workings of the internet are hidden from public view.

  • ISPs enjoy a similar concentration in the US; just 4 companies account for 76% of internet subscriptions.

  • Common Carrier Rules are a legal standard. The standard basically enforces that those who sell something cannot discriminate against those who buy it. For example, an ISP obliged to respect Common Carrier Rules would be unable to bar other smaller ISPs from buying access to the ISP’s network and then selling it to others. With the death of Common Carrier Rules by successive neoliberal presidents, the possibility for smaller ISPs to exist ended. This led to the consolidation of ISPs.

  • The consolidation of ISPs is closely tied to the existence of content providers. 50% of internet traffic is attributable to Netflix, Amazon, Google and Facebook. Because few ISPs exist, these prime content providers make deals with ISPs in order to expedite the delivery of their packets to users. Indeed, finding a way to expedite packet delivery is a theme for content providers. Many of them have invested and developed physical infrastructure (e.g. undersea fiber optic cables) for the sole purpose of being able to exclusively and quickly ferry packets. This leads to the internet being even more privatised. In a sense, these firms are practicing vertical integration, attempting to own pipes as well as control the material flowing through them.

  • How well does the claim that privatisation of the internet would benefit end users hold up? Concentrating on the United States, we know that 162.8 million Americans do not use the internet at broadband speeds. Overwhelmingly, these are Americans who are rural and low-income. The relatively low speeds can be ascribed to some factors: internet prices are prohibitively high (even as ISPs award millions and billions to their CEOs and share holders, respectively) for many users; moreover, many areas suffer from internet disinvestment (aka internet redlining).

  • There are other challenges facing users: 1 in 5 American children don’t have an internet connection adequate enough to do their work; many Americans (about 20%) have only their phones to navigate the internet.

  • Tarnoff theorises that democracy has 2 forms: a “negative” form, understandable as “freedom from coercion” and a “positive” form, understandable as the ability to carry designs into effect. Tarnoff believes that internet access is a critical prerequisite to exercise the “positive” form. As long as the motive to accumulate governs the terms of internet access, a fundamentally undemocratic internet will reign.

I’m ashamed I missed this during the reading group but the discussion of positive and negative freedoms is, particularly relevant to us!


Isaiah Berlin was pretty on it with a lot of things eh?

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