Intertubes

I’ve written about control over the internet on numerous times before. Mostly when we talk about this, we talk about different layers of technology. This is going to be a hefty long post, sorry for that.

Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon, Dropbox etc are all (sort of) web based services. They have “soft” control over us by storing our data and thus keeping us dependent upon their systems for accessing the data. These companies are mostly based in the US.

The web itself uses DNS to make sure that we can find the right IP addresses to communicate with these services. With a broken DNS system, someone could claim to be Facebook etc and do so called man in the middle attacks to access any data we store in cloud services.

The DNS we all use is controlled by an organisation in the US, called ICANN, in their root-servers system. You can look at it as a form of universal phonebook, with only one organisation that decide which countries can be represented in the phonebook. They also have the means to override any single entry in the database with what ever data they want.

Both of these issues are real problems we’re facing today. Judges in different parts of the US has suspended domains that are not connected to the US in any way of form, just by claiming that the organisation that controls the data is based in the US.

These issues are however, as I mentioned earlier, kind of soft. They’re software that we can swap out and migrate away from. We’ve done that earlier with things like Myspace and we’ll probably do it again with Facebook. The DNS is a bit worse since we have no real replacement technology for it today even though a lot of people (me included) have tried to replace it. It’s just too much of a problem.

But even if/when the DNS breaks (politically rather than anything else), we can still reach other nodes directly by using their IP addresses. It will be a huge problem but we could probably replace the DNS with a competing one. It will be as everyones phonebooks got erased and we had to rely upon peoples phone numbers again.

But one thing is even worse than this and is never really talked about: Who owns the physical infrastructure that we use and need? The layer upon where all of our communication is based on.

Most people understand that they have some sort of internet provider, some might even know the name of their provider. Few people understand the complex relationship between providers. The internet traffic you’re generating is usually going to a network outside of your own providers network. This means that your provider must find a suitable route for that traffic to travel.

Internet providers has to exchange, using computers specialised at doing traffic exchange. These computers are called routers. Most providers in the world have other providers to be able to send/receive internet traffic. They connect their routers to eachother, either at a private facility (with a fiber or copper cable between the routers) or at an internet exchange points (IXP for short), where multiple providers have decided to exchange traffic to any provider available at that point. There are free IXP services and there are commercial ones. And there are two types of exchanges done. One is called peering, where the providers allow for (usually) free flow between their own networks. The other exchange is called transit, where one provider allows the other to reach his network and all networks he is connected to, which usually means the full internet.

Bigger players usually do not allow anyone to get to their network for free, even at exchange points. They only allow smaller providers to pay for access to the internet, at prices that vary – a lot.

There are a few providers in the world that are called “tier 1″ providers. They have such a huge network that do not need to pay anyone to reach any network in the world. Instead, they can charge hefty costs for smaller providers to be able to reach the internet over their network.

Today there are 13 companies that are considered being Tier 1 providers. 8 of these are based in the US, 4 in Europe and 1 in India. All of these have a huge control over the internet and the prices in the market for what bandwidth costs. Most smaller providers, that includes even huge multi national internet providers, are quite dependent on their upstream Tier 1 provider.

But these providers still have a physical provider! Even though a lot of these companies also own a lot of their own infrastructure, they need to lease the physical connectivity to different locations from other companies. In some places they rent dark fibers between cities or larger regions, in other places they need to put down the physical fiber themselves. And it’s just a handful of companies that in turn own most of the international fiber cables.

We need to seriously start looking at this as a problem internationally. We’re all seeing that the control from one single country over most of the internet services we use are troublesome at best. Most of us are familiar with laws from the USA (like the DMCA) because of their influence over our networks. And we’re not doing what we should to make sure that the internet stays international, with national control over national affairs. If a US judge says that a US company has to monitor all traffic in, let’s say Afghanistan or Iran, they have the possibilities of doing so. They might already be doing it, we have no way of controlling that.

In order to ensure that we’re not building an internet that has a single point of failure, it’s time to look at how to build a redundant network. The EU should push for national fiber rings, between big cities in each nation, owned by the state it’s located in. The costs of using these fibers could be done close to self-cost levels. Every time a road or railroad is built, moved or renovated, fiber tubes should be put down in the ground, wherever the road leads to.

This way we could ensure a real public infrastructure, not dependent on the US. We’d ensure that the current fiber owners (and in turn internet providers) would have to adjust  their costs to match a public infrastructure. We’d make internet access available for a fair price for everyone.

But most of all, we’d make sure that the control over the infrastructure that we’re building our current and future communication on. The internet is no longer just a playground, it’s not just for entertainment. It’s for real, we’re totally dependent on it.

And we’re not all citizens of the USA.

5 comments ↓

#1 Bianka on 05.26.13 at 21:31

Made a point ! Love this post

#2 dernf on 05.27.13 at 03:43

thought we were going to do anonymous wifi mesh internet with some kind of “p2pdns” after the bandwidth opens up.

#3 axel arnbak on 05.27.13 at 07:11

definitely an important issue. for more, check out this great report by ross anderson a.o., commissioned by ENISA: http://www.enisa.europa.eu/activities/Resilience-and-CIIP/critical-infrastructure-and-services/inter-x/interx/report

#4 Emil Begtrup-Bright on 05.27.13 at 11:52

thanks, fascinating stuff. Thanks for explaining it in a manner so easily understood.

#5 Kurtis Lindqvist on 05.27.13 at 13:53

First of all, the “root-server system” is not under the control of ICANN, on the contrary. The content of the root zone is edited by ICANN, verified by Dept Commerce and published by Verisign. It’s distributed by the 12 organizations that operate the 13 root-servers that make up the root-server system. _One_ of these operators are ICANN.

As for the underlying cable infrastructure – most seacable or long cable routes are built by consortiums with many owners, including various nations. Short of the nations, most carriers secure their funding by various bond sales or cash investments making the ownership quite broad (and complex). The SE-ME-WE cable system coming to Bangladesh for example is paid for and owned by the Bangladesh government. Just to name one example.

I think you are right that highlighting the components that build up the Internet infrastructure is important but it’s more complex than what you describe, less US based and not that black and white.