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Who owns the Internet?

­Imagine you're in a room full of people from different countries, and everyone only speaks his or her native language. In order to communicate, you'd have to come up with a standard set of rules and vocabulary. That's what makes the Internet so remarkable: It's a system that lets different computer networks communicate with each other using a standardized set of rules. Without rules, these computer networks wouldn't be able to communicate with each other.

Think for a minute about the scope of the Internet. It's a collection of inter-networked computer systems that spans the entire globe. It depends on several sets of rules called protocols. These protocols make it possible for computer communication across networks. It also relies on a huge infrastructure of routers, Network Access Points (NAPs) and computer systems. Then there are the satellites, miles of cable and hundreds of wireless routers that transmit signals between computers and networks.

­It's a truly global system. Cables crisscross countries and oceans, crossing borders and linking some of the world's most remote locations to everyone else. And the Internet is still growing. More computers link to it every day, and various organizations and companies are working to extend Internet access to countries that aren't yet connected.

The Internet is a giant system made up of much smaller systems. If it's one thing, does it have a single owner? Is there some person or entity that controls the Internet? Is it possible for someone to own something that spans nations and oceans? Keep reading to find out.­

AT&T is one of several companies that own part of the Internet backbone

Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Internet's Owners

So who actually owns the Internet? There are two answers to this question:

  1. Nobody
  2. Lots of people

If you think of the Internet as a unified, single entity, then no one owns it. There are organizations that determine the Internet's structure and how it works, but they don't have any ownership over the Internet itself. No government can lay claim to owning the Internet, nor can any company. The Internet is like the telephone system -- no one owns the whole thing.

From another point of view, thousands of people and organizations own the Internet. The Internet consists of lots of different bits and pieces, each of which has an owner. Some of these owners can control the quality and level of access you have to the Internet. They might not own the entire system, but they can impact your Internet experience.

The physical network that carries Internet traffic between different computer systems is the Internet backbone. In the early days of the Internet, ARPANET served as the system's backbone. Today, several large corporations provide the routers and cable that make up the Internet backbone. These companies are upstream Internet Service Providers (ISPs). That means that anyone who wants to access the Internet must ultimately work with these companies, which include:

  • UUNET
  • Level 3
  • Verizon
  • AT&T
  • Qwest
  • Sprint
  • IBM

Then you have all the smaller ISPs. Many individual consumers and businesses subscribe to ISPs that aren't part of the Internet backbone. These ISPs negotiate with the upstream ISPs for Internet access. Cable and DSL companies are examples of smaller ISPs. Such companies are concerned with what the industry calls the last mile -- the distance between the end consumer and Internet connectivity.

Within the backbone are Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), which are physical connections between networks that allow data exchanges. For example, while Sprint, Verizon and AT&T provide part of the Internet backbone's infrastructure, the three networks aren't intertwined. They connect together at an IXP. Several companies and non-profit organizations administer IXPs.

The individual computer networks that make up the Internet can have owners. Every ISP has its own network. Several nations' governments oversee computer networks. Many companies have local area networks (LANs) that link to the Internet. Each of these networks is both a part of the Internet and its own separate entity. Depending on local laws, the owners of these networks can control the level of access users have to the Internet.

You might consider yourself to be an owner of the Internet. Do you own a device that you use to connect to the Internet? If so, that means the device you own becomes part of the enormous inter-networked system. You are the proud owner of part of the Internet -- it's just a very small part.

If no one owns the Internet, who is responsible for making sure everything works? Find out in the next section.

ICANN CEO Paul Twomey attends the World Summit on the Internet Society in Tunisia

Abdelhak Senna/Getty Images

The Internet's Caretakers

As mentioned earlier, the Internet works because of a system of rules called protocols. By following these protocols, computers can send information across the network to other computers. If there were no protocols, then there'd be no guarantee that the information sent from one computer could be understood by another, or that it'd even reach the right destination.

As the Internet evolves, these protocols must also change. That means someone has to be in charge of the rules. There are several organizations that oversee the Internet's infrastructure and protocols. They are:

  • The Internet Society: A nonprofit organization that develops Internet standards, policies and education.
  • The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): An international organization with an open membership policy that has several working groups. Each working group concentrates on a specific topic, such as Internet security. Collectively, these working groups try to maintain the Internet's architecture and stability.
  • The Internet Architecture Board (IAB): An IETF committee, the IAB's mission is to oversee the design of Internet protocols and standards.
  • The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN): A private nonprofit corporation, ICANN manages the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). ICANN is responsible for making sure that every domain name links to the correct IP address.

The Internet Society and IETF are open membership organizations. Both welcome the participation and input of Internet experts. They shape the way the Internet works and evolves.

ICANN, on the other hand, is a private organization. The exclusive nature of ICANN concerns some people. They argue that ICANN holds a lot of power over anyone who wants to register a domain name. ICANN makes money by accrediting vendors called registrars. These registrars then sell domain names to consumers and businesses. If you want to register a specific domain name, ultimately ICANN decides if you can have it.

While none of these organizations own the Internet, they each influence how the Internet works. The Internet has no central owner. While its structure remains carefully designed and maintained, the actual content on the Internet continues to be the untamed cyberspace we all know and love.

To learn more about the Internet and other topics, follow the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks ArticlesMore Great LinksSources
  • "A Technical History of the ARPANET." THINK project, The University of Texas at Austin. http://www.cs.utexas.edu/users/chris/nph/ARPANET/ScottR/arpanet/timeline.htm
  • ICANN Watch http://www.icannwatch.org/
  • The Internet Architecture Board http://www.iab.org/
  • The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers http://www.icann.org/
  • The Internet Engineering Task Force http://www.ietf.org/
  • Lessig, Lawrence. "The Internet Under Siege." Foreign Policy. November/December 2001. http://lessig.org/blog/ForeignPolicy.pdf
  • Swanson, Tim. "Who owns the Internet?" Ludwig von Mises Institute. May 4, 2006. http://www.mises.org/story/2139
  • "Who owns the Internet and who is in charge?" World-Information.org. http://world-information.org/wio/infostructure/100437611791/100438658447
  • Worthen, Ben. "Who owns the Internet?" CIO. March 17, 2006. http://advice.cio.com/node/209