The Secrets of How the Internet Works


Author: Fil Zivko
9/4/2019

The internet has revolutionised humanity. It is perhaps the greatest tool we have ever built, for better or worse. But how does it work? Who owns it? Where IS the internet? And who makes sure it keeps running? Let’s explore the internet, it’s crazy pioneers, the organisations that keep it running, its present and future. The revolution began in 1969, in an obscure room inside UCLA's campus. 3 years previously, a little-known division of the military called the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) moved 1 million dollars away from the ballistic missile program to develop networks between computers, it would fittingly be named ARPANET. The students at UCLA were trying to log in on a computer at Stanford, to do this they began typing “log”. They only got as far as “lo” before the system crashed, a perfectly fitting first word for the technology that would revolutionize our world, lo and behold… the internet. Over the next few years, ARPANET grew, connecting more and more computers eventually inspiring the modern internet. Twenty years later, English scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN in Geneva. He grew frustrated with the incompatibility of different networks he had to access as part of this job, so he invented the world wide web. Although the internet and the web are often used as synonyms, they are not the same thing. The internet is the infrastructure of the network while the web is a way of accessing information via the internet. Tim Burners-Lee invented the core on which most websites work, he allowed the internet to become uniform and usable, yet he never patented his idea. One can only imagine the riches he gave up in order to allow his invention to flourish. The modern internet has a huge array of interconnected points across the globe. Cables span across entire oceans to connect countries. We have been laying submarine cables since 1854 when construction began on the first transatlantic cable. The process is a surprisingly simple engineering feat for incredibly complex technology. Each cable consists of nothing more than some optical fibres wrapped with materials for protection such as copper, silicon and polyethylene. These cables are typically 69mm in diameter and globally approximately 420 cables have been laid spanning over 1.1million kilometres as of 2017. A ship pulls the cable from one countries coastline to another. On the sea floor below, cable is laid by a sea plough which digs a little crevasse for the cable to fall into, with natural ocean currents burying it. If the ground is uneven, the cable is unburied and laid over this area, leaving it open to shark attacks, ship anchors and natural disasters. In 2008 disruption occurred to 60% of India and 70% of Egypt’s services as well as in other Asian and Mediterranean regions. This was either caused by bad weather or ship anchors cutting submarine cables. Damaged cables are not uncommon, repairs are constantly carried out on severed cables around the world. But it is interesting to think about how physically vulnerable the internet is. Of course, there are so many routes that traffic can take, that it makes it nearly impossible to kill the internet by just cutting off one cable. Especially since satellites circle the earth beaming down the internet from the skies. There are systems of cables spanning across countries and cities, leading right up to your door. That is, if you’re lucky and live in a place wealthy enough and populated enough to allow for a cable connection to the internet. It is still growing, about half of everyone on earth has access to the internet, so we still have yet to see what the internet evolves into by the time adoption reaches saturation. Well, technically no one and everyone. The internet itself is an autonomous interconnection of various voluntary networks. It’s decentralized, so no one government or body owns or controls the internet, however, governments have the ability to control their citizens access to the internet via laws that impact the internet service providers (ISPs) of that nation. For example, China restricts its citizen from accessing YouTube. In 2016, the US government officially handed over the ownership of the database which holds domain names to the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers or ICANN for short, who had been overseeing this database for the last 20 years. Symbolically this meant that we reached a point where the ownership was given back to the people. ICANN is an independent body which has multi-stakeholder community. This means that ICANN tries to consult the internet community about changes and at least attempts to be as open and transparent as possible. It’s unlikely that you’ve heard of ICANN, but the non-profit organisation performs one of the most important rituals which keeps the internet safe. They manage the domain name system (DNS) which means that when you type www.google.com in your browser the response you receive is Google and not a fake version of Google created by a Nigerian prince. Every three months a group of “trusted community members” gather to perform a ritual, which will renew and ensure the DNS system for the next three months. The ceremony is recorded, with tight security such as guards, safes, cages and alarms. In fact, the alarms are so sensitive that at one ceremony, a slamming door set off the seismic sensor locking people into one of the cages. An evacuation had to be triggered to release them. The master key is stored on a cryptographic device, which if dropped or tampered with, will erase its contents. Part keys are distributed to the trusted members, ensuring that no one person can recreate the master key, requiring the presence of at least five of these people to come together to do so. This is just one organisation which helps to make sure the internet runs smoothly, among a host of others such as Internet Engineering Task Force and the World Wide Web Consortium run by none other than Tim Burners-Lee. These organisations set the standards, make the protocols and ensure that the internet is safe and open. It is undeniable to say the internet has changed our lives forever. It has taken over so many facets of our lives. 72% of internet users check their medical diagnosis online, and 50% of doctors do too. It’s allowed people to carry around every encyclopedia in the world just in the palm of their hand. I wonder how people used to solve arguments without the help of Google. But with massive information, comes massive misinformation. It is much easier now for people to use confirmation bias, to validate their point of view. Before the internet people may have struggled to find others who share their opinion or interests. And while this may be great for people who have an interest in photoshopping arms onto birds such as the subreddit birdswitharms. It also allows people with unpopular and maybe even immoral views to find comfort in their online community. Ironically the tool which gives us the freedom to communicate and spread ideas has been the tool which also polarizes us and supplies misinformation. The use of social media has also drastically changed our lives. Propagating unrealistic lifestyles through Instagram and making us more connected but further apart than ever before. I discuss this in a previous video “The Death of Facebook”, I’ll leave a link at the end of the video. Of course, the internet has some negatives aspects, almost any technology does because human nature is to blame for the way we use the tools we make, not the tools themselves. It also has many positives. The internet has given creators, artists, journalists and many others a platform otherwise not possible. Without YouTube, we may not have discovered Justin Beiber… ok, that’s maybe not a positive. But what about some of your other favourite YouTubers? Micheal from Vsauce even had a segment called Do Online Now Guys or DONGS were he simply lists the most amazing things that you can do online, now. Interesting topics organically trend and more people view things that are genuinely interesting, rather than accidentally stumbling upon an interesting topic in a rigid magazine or newspaper. On a deeper and more important level, the internet has enabled people to mobilize into protests and revolutions such as the yellow vest protest in France which began after an online petition gained momentum. The spread information that was once only possible if you owned all the media outlets in the country is now to some extent possible by anyone with an internet connection and a potent message. Just look at the viral sensation KONY 2012 which even though it fizzled out to an embarrassment for its lack of action, had gripped the whole world’s attention. Or the audience that Wikileaks was able to reach. Depending on where you live, the public has much more say in politics than before, as politicians who previously could cover up their tracks are much easier exposed in the age of the internet. Apart from this, our lives are made far more convenient. I grew up with the internet. But I do remember a time when I was a kid when I had to call my friends home phone to ask to meet at the park. Visiting the local Blockbuster to rent movies was an event equal to the movie itself. There was some magic we lost there, of course, this could just be nostalgia talking. Nothing lasts forever, and technology is just the medium of change. We should embrace change, and make sure the tool doesn’t change us, but that we change the tool to suit us. So how will the internet evolve? Well, it is going to get faster. 5g is set to arrive somewhere in 2019 or 2020 depending on which country you live in. 5g speed varies between ISPs promises, but it will represent at least a 10-fold increase in speed. With potential max speeds of 20 Gbps, this may even render fixed connections useless. There are some scientists and political figures who are questioning the safety of 5g, worried about the higher frequencies associated with higher data transfers. However, the frequencies proposed by 5g are an order of magnitude less than the current international limit of 300Ghz, hence it is unlikely that this will slow down the technology significantly. The internet of things will mature, all devices may become smart, not just our cell phones. Our online privacy is a commodity now, as seen in the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal, but we may take control of this one day. As governments are waking up to the power the tech giants have, more regulations are imposed on them, perhaps we will reach a stage where our online identity is protected far better than it is now. Or perhaps as more aspects of our lives are uploaded, privacy may instead just become a thing of the past. The European Union has recently approved a controversial copyright law named Article 13. This is an attempt to have a more even share of profits between content creators online. However, as I discussed in my earlier video “The end of the internet”, there are concerns that this law may have a radical impact on the way that we share and produce content. The law passed by a sizeable majority however on the question of debating amendments, five Swedish members accidentally pressed the wrong button, meaning no debates. And while the law has been amended since 2018 to exclude memes from its scope, people still have fears that these laws it will kill small independent creators and cause massive undesired side effects. At the end of the day, we are in control, the internet is what we make it.

Tags : The Internet, How it works, ICANN, Tim Burners-Lee, ,2019-04-09
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