Who owns the internet?
September 6, 2006 3:34 PM   Subscribe

who owns the internet? i'm a complete technology ignoramus with a somewhat instinctive understaning how most things work. can you please humor me and tell me who owns the internet? e.g. why do i have to pay for registering a new domain name, who gets this money and why? who supports the entire internet system and how? who is in control?
posted by barrakuda to Technology (17 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
ICANN manages domain names & IP addresses. They license who can handle domain registries/etc.

The internet itself, though, works because a bunch of very large companies have a lot of cable laid down, and they all have peering agreements. These basically say "I'll let your traffic over my wires if you let my traffic over your wires." Those large companies form the backbone of the net. From that, 2nd & 3rd level companies will branch out, combine service from 1st level companies, etc, and this will eventually go to the ISPs that you usually use (sometimes a single company will provide multiple steps, although there were originally moves to block this).
posted by devilsbrigade at 3:39 PM on September 6, 2006

Not to mention, if by "internet" you mean the actual "internet," which is a huge array of things all tied together by TCP/IP, or if you mean "the world wide web," which - as mentioned above - is run by ICANN.
posted by absalom at 3:59 PM on September 6, 2006

No one owns the internet. What you have are thousands of players that contribute a myriad of different resources or services that, combined, allow the internet to exist and grow.

You have legislative bodies (either government or non-profit standards based organization) that decide who and/or how services are offered either internationally or nationally. In some countries, major telecommunication providers fund or source the cabling and co-location facilities that handle traffic routing, bandwidth allocation, and a whole host of other services. A lot of funding for those services come from government coffers. In some countries, government's control all access to the internet with very strict controls over private industry involvement.

In either case, both the physical and logical mechanisms that allow the traffic to flow stem from the work done by hundreds or even thousands of individuals who develop standards that allow all the different players to work with one another (to varying degrees of success).

Some have argued that far too much control of the internet resides within the continental US (and I happen to agree with them) since it originated within the US and a lot of the major corporate players were well into the game prior to it becoming a global phenomenon. This is changing as countries like China, the EU and others exert more pressure on the UN to break-up the pseudo-monopoly that the US and US-controlled interests have in the internet.

The Wikipedia article contains pretty much everything you would ever need to know about the internet. It's as good a starting point as any.
posted by purephase at 4:10 PM on September 6, 2006

The reason you have to pay to register a domain name is that there's expense associated with the domain name system, and it's paid for by user fees.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 4:16 PM on September 6, 2006

Though they only started charging money for domain names in 1995 (I think that's the year).
posted by adamrice at 4:37 PM on September 6, 2006

Yeah it depends what you mean by "the internet" -- how about this question: "who owns the phone system?"

Answer ... well, lots of people (public corporations, governments, private companies) own lots of different bits of it (copper wires, poles, cables, exchanges), but that's beside the point: the key thing is that all the bits of it co-operate -- all the parts of the international phone system talk to each other in predictable ways.

So nobody owns the internet, the way that nobody owns the phone system. "The internet" is really just the set of rules that allow all the different parts of it to talk to each other.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 5:18 PM on September 6, 2006

Not to mention, if by "internet" you mean the actual "internet," which is a huge array of things all tied together by TCP/IP, or if you mean "the world wide web," which - as mentioned above - is run by ICANN.

Huh? ICANN assigns domains and IP addresses. They can be used for the Web or for mail or for anything else.

And the reason people pay to be listed on ICANN's domain name servers and in its routing tables is that those are the servers and tables everyone uses. You could try to set up alternate root DNS servers, but it would be useless because no one would be using them to look up domains.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 5:22 PM on September 6, 2006

Best answer: ...if you mean "the world wide web," which - as mentioned above - is run by ICANN...
The World Wide Web is not run by ICANN. ICANN is responsible for managing the domain name system (DNS), the system which translates domain and host names (like www.metafilter.com) into addresses which your computer understands and can connect to (like When you tell your computer you want to visit www.metafilter.com on the web, your computer contacts other computers to find Metafilter's numerical address, and connects to that numerical address.

why do i have to pay for registering a new domain name, who gets this money and why?
You have to pay to register a domain name so that the people who maintain the domain name system will let other people (and machines) know that you "own" the domain name, and how to contact you and the machines in that domain. If Matt didn't pay for the domain name metafilter.com, you would have to know and remember Metafilter's numerical address to get to it; and if that numerical address ever changed (because the physical location of the server moved, for example), you and everyone else would need to find out and remember the new address somehow.

who gets this money - generally, a registrar (GoDaddy or Tucows, for example) is the retailer that "sells" you a domain. Behind them, a registry (Verisign, for example) is the wholesaler that keeps track of who "owns" which domains, what machines can tell you where the domain's machines are, etc.

why? - ICANN decides who the registries/wholesalers are. The U.S. government delegated this power to ICANN in 1998. Somebody else could set up their own list of who owns what domains, or what registries have the right lists, but pretty much everyone has agreed to abide by what ICANN says.

who supports the entire internet system and how? - nobody really supports the entire internet system. The closest thing is the list of 16 servers here that, when contacted by your machine (or the appropriate machines on your network), will tell your machine how to get to Internet sites you're looking for. It's explained more here. Note that no one entity controls all 16 of those machines. Though those machines are supposed to give out information based on what they're told by the IANA which currently is part of ICANN. Someone in the chain of people who give you Internet access knows that those 16 servers are where to go for information.

who is in control? In a sense, nobody is in control. In another sense, the registries (Verisign, etc.) are in control because they maintain the databases of who owns which domains. In another sense, ICANN is in control because just about everybody lets them determine which registries control which top-level domains (.com, .org, .net, .uk, etc.) In another sense, the U.S. government is in control because they let ICANN have the power it wants, and ICANN tends to defer to the U.S. when controversial issues come up.

Since you specifically asked about domains, that's what I answered; the cables and networks are a somewhat different story. For just getting access to the network, you (or your benefactor) pay some network provider (cable company, phone company, whoever); they pay someone bigger; etc. until you get to the level of someone big enough to pay for connections to other large networks, which other people (like Matt) pay for access to.
posted by mistersix at 5:52 PM on September 6, 2006 [33 favorites]

ICANN doesn't manage the IP space. The primary regulatory authority for IP assignment is IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority.

It has subcontracted segments of the IP number space to regional authorities: ARIN, APNIC, RIPE, LACNIC, AFRINIC, and JPNIC.

Here's a list of the top level block assignments in the IP space. (Some of them are strange because back in 1983 they were a bit careless about tossing around class A licenses. That's why BBN has both the 8. and 46. blocks assigned to it.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:42 PM on September 6, 2006

Misersix, are you sure that IANA is part of ICANN? I thought IANA was indepedent.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:44 PM on September 6, 2006

I stand corrected. You are right.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 6:44 PM on September 6, 2006 [1 favorite]

One of the things that helps with this sort of thinking is the following: "internet" is not a proper noun.

"Internet" really refers to a shortening of the phrase "inter-network networking". It is a technique, a technology, and a set of de facto standards that have let zillions of people connect their networks. It isn't a thing to which you subscribe.

Technically, anything running IP is creating an internet. For instance, your computer sitting alone is its own internet. Connect it to Verizon, and now your network is connected to lots of other networks.

There're lots of services provided by various organizations: there's one that hands out IP addresses, another that handles domain registration, the telcos for data transport, and a zillion local policies about routing trafic. Those people, arguably, "own" portions of the functionality that makes the internet run.

But, you could lay your own line, implement your own policies for IPs, set up routing, and have your own internet. Then, you could plug it into Comcast, and connect your internet to the "consensus internet".

Really... nobody owns the internet. But, people own pieces of it.
posted by Netzapper at 7:02 PM on September 6, 2006

mistersix, that was a really really good answer.
posted by Dr. Wu at 8:51 PM on September 6, 2006

...except that the ARPANET was dismantled a long time ago. (I know; I used to work on the hardware on which the ARPANET was based. If you can believe it, the basic backbone data links on the ARPANET were 56 kilobaud.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:51 PM on September 6, 2006

"Your computer sitting alone" is not an internet, because there is no network.

Ah, but what about a VMWare or Xen box with a bunch of virtual machines all communicating via bridged networking? Does that count? (Not that it matters, I'm just playing semantics)
posted by cyrusdogstar at 8:21 AM on September 7, 2006

cyrusdogstar, that's just your computer playing internet with itself, kind of like kids playing "doctor", but less nudity and gaping at ... parts.
posted by catkins at 1:39 PM on September 7, 2006

I miscounted the number of root servers in my previous comment; there are 13 root servers at the center of the DNS system, not the 16 I said. Also, in some cases, what looks like one server in that list is actually several machines behind one IP address.
posted by mistersix at 2:18 PM on September 7, 2006

« Older Things to do in London when you're bored.   |   Laptop Screen Problems Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.