The Internet was once famously (and quite awkwardly) described by US Senator Ted Stevens as “a series of tubes”. What the Senator was trying to talk about in this case was the issue of user connection speeds in the context of Net Neutrality.
It is clear from the youtube clip of his speech hat he doesn’t have a sound grasp of how the Internet is set up. He stumbles with descriptions of the pieces in play, at one point stating that it took him days to receive The Internet over email. To make matters much, much worse, Stevens was both the Chairman of the Senate commerce committee (in effect, “in charge” of the regulation of the Internet) and author of the regulatory bill in that context. The real danger of any attempt to regulate the Internet is this problem: that nobody seems to really understand it, or how it works. We just “log on” from the privacy of our own homes and let the magic happen. I will cover Internet regulation in an upcoming post, but for now lets take a big step backward and look at what the Internet is made of.
The Internet is essentially a network of independent networks. The reason these networks can talk to each other is they use a set of protocols established and subsequently developed over time. Initially a US government project developed to have a durable and distributed communication platform, the entire network both improved and grew internationally and commercially over time. In the early 90s, Tim Berners-Lee added the concept of interlinked pages that could be accessed through the network, creating the World Wide Web as we know it today.
Because we’re talking about a network of networks, when you interact with the Internet, your request for a web page will visit many points along these networks before finally reaching it’s destination, and then it must return that information back to you across that network again. Essentially your information travels the networks twice. In addition, your request and the response that comes back is broken up into tiny little pieces (called packets), and these pieces can travel the networks by different routes before being reassembled at their first destination (and then again on the way home again).
Among the types of networks in play, you have your local network that you use to connect to your service provider (ISP). This could be a wireless network or cable modem. The majority of the Internet is called the Internet Backbone. This includes the ISPs and Internet Exchange Points.
Depending on how you are connecting to the Internet and the networks it travels, there are tools that can grab your packets (this is all so sordid) and re-assemble them. Especially if you are on an insecure wireless network, and you aren’t encrypting your connection, it can be very easy for anyone to see what you are doing using certain kinds of tools. All of the networks along the process are likely logging your IP address along the way as well, identifying the time of your connection and what you were requesting. Standard web browsers pass along the last site you were visiting to the current site you are visiting. And this is just scratching the surface.
Governments can demand and receive data from ISPs about what people were doing online as well. The United States Supreme Court has ruled that US citizens’ information is private and protected under the fourth amendment, but please take note that this information exists physically, and *can* be retrieved. I will cover Internet regulation and government involvement in a forthcoming post.
The marketing opportunity that the Internet presents are nothing short of profound. Never before have marketers had access to so much real-time data about consumers and their activities. The browsers that we use to interface with the Internet have built-in capability that allows various parties along your network to track your behavior. Browsers also have configuration tools that allow users to limit or completely turn off third-party and primary party tracking cookies. And concerned users along with pro-consumer third parties have begun policy changes intended to limit this tracking. But sometimes websites will go beyond the standard protocols in order to track users. I will cover this topic in detail in another upcoming post.
The general dynamic of an Internet user is that they are sitting in a closed physical space and that they are the only person looking at their screen. This likely sets up the impression that what you are doing on the Internet is a private activity between you and the website. But the reality is that the Internet is much more like a public park than a private residence, and even attempts to “stay off the grid” may be becoming increasingly futile.