The System, book review: How the internet works and who runs it

The System, book review: How the internet works and who runs it

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The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us • By James Ball • Bloomsbury • 288 pages • ISBN: 978-1-52-660724-9 • £18 (hardback) / £14 (e-book)

It’s been a while since the last book explaining how the internet works. I believe it was was in 2012, when US Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) characterization of the internet as “a series of tubes”, inspired Andrew Blum to write Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet to explore the network’s oft-forgotten physical underpinnings — a theme also taken up in Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, which showed how physics helped high-frequency traders exploit the financial markets. Now, here is James Ball, with The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us, to examine the internet and power.

Internet history can be slippery. Contrary to expectations in the 1990s — and then again in 2011, crediting social media with the Arab Spring — the internet has not changed the world’s overall system. To understand why, Ball moves methodically through network layers, starting with architects (“the mechanics”), building through protocols and cables (“the cable guys”) to governance bodies (such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN), venture capital, advertising intermediaries, intelligence agencies and their adversaries, regulators, and digital rights activists. 

Ball doesn’t try to be comprehensive: he discusses ICANN, which governs the domain name system, but not technical standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and while the Federal Trade Commission appears as a regulator, he’s interested in network neutrality, but not the failures of antitrust law to contain the internet’s monopolies. 

Origin stories

It says something about the speed of change and the scale of its development that a new book about how the internet works is now so far removed from what one of Ball’s interviewees calls “the romantic internet”, that 1990s books about its origins such as Katie Hafner’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late and Janet Abbate’s more internationally-oriented Inventing the Internet don’t appear in its ‘further reading’ list (although Tubes does). 

Ball does, however, talk to people who were there, such as internet pioneer Steve Crocker, who explains why some of the basic characteristics of the internet are what they are. The lack of provision for billing is because government services didn’t need it, while the documents that set the standards are called RFCs — Request for Comments — because they were written by graduate students who lacked authority. 

Most of Ball’s other interviewees aren’t as well-known, but each is a keeper of a significant piece of how the internet is run. He also attends in person the arcane secure key signing ceremony that keeps the internet’s root intact.

This is a British book written by a British journalist, yet the book’s sources are predominantly American. Of course, much of these aspects of the internet’s development has been led from the US, but even so, given that we’re shaping up for a trade war over data protection laws, it’s odd to find these laws and the brewing conflict largely ignored. Ball’s discussions with EFF (the Electronic Frontier Foundation) and Wikipedia fill the chapter on activists, while the 30-year-old London-based Privacy International and the rest of Europe’s activists are omitted. The huge shift in telecoms industry power structures brought by the iPhone/Android duopoly is also left untouched. 

Which all leads me to wonder. To date, all the internet histories we know have been Western, telling the same story of a great cooperative experiment, now commercially captured. What would the story of the internet look like as written by Ball’s equivalent in China, with its different set of burgeoning businesses and comprehensive firewall?

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