The networking that brought the world together could tear it apart, as countries vie for control of cyberspace. Internet experts say they're still waiting to see whether the Net will survive as an international commons or fall victim to global rivalries, espionage and cyberwarfare.
If the Internet is ever shut down, Ken Silva will be among the first to see it.
Not know it — see it.
Silva is chief technology officer for VeriSign, one of about a dozen entities around the world responsible for keeping Internet traffic moving. He can literally follow the flow on a monitor in the VeriSign operations center in Northern Virginia.
"In Miami, we're currently getting 60,000 queries per second," Silva tells a visitor as he points to the lighted world map on the monitor. "New York is getting 77,000 per second. Tokyo is getting 50,000 per second."
How A Browser Goes From Point A To Point B
The Internet, arguably the fastest world-changing invention in history, depends fundamentally on an addressing system. Every time you ask for a new Web page, your computer needs to find its way to the computer where the requested Web page resides.
With more than a billion computers connected to the Internet, it's not a simple matter. Each computer online is assigned a number: its Internet address. The role of VeriSign and other "root servers" is to keep track of all those addresses, so that when one computer "queries" another's address, the answer comes back promptly, and the connection is made.
"We tend to see things before just about anyone else does," Silva says.
Amazingly, the Internet addressing system is still working more or less as it was designed 25 years ago, though with exponentially higher volumes. About 1.7 billion people around the globe now have at least occasional Internet access. The World Wide Web is still living up to its name.
What Brings The World Together Could Tear It Apart
Having united the world, however, the Internet is rapidly becoming a place of global competition. Internet experts are waiting to see whether it will survive as an international commons or fall victim to global rivalries, espionage and cyberwarfare.
The addressing system that makes Internet traffic possible is overseen by a nongovernmental organization, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN. It is arguably the only body that oversees the global operation of the Internet. Its mission, though technical, is critical to the survival of the Internet as an open network accessible everywhere.
"I believe in world unity," says Rod Beckstrom, who is ICANN's president. "And I believe that the Internet is an incredible platform for world unity and enhancing relationships, and integrating commerce and societies."
ICANN, formed in 1998 and based in California, operates under contract to the U.S. Department of Commerce, but Beckstrom defines its goal as "serving the global public interest." Its board of directors includes representatives from all over the world, and it takes counsel from its Governmental Advisory Committee.
The U.S. role in global Internet governance, once dominant, has diminished significantly in recent years. Beckstrom and other ICANN officials are determined to limit the organization's mission to technical matters, steering clear of politics.
And for good reason.
If the Internet's governance is perceived to favor some countries over others, its unfettered operation could be jeopardized. Some observers fear that the Internet's growing reach and strategic importance may lead to an effort to bring it under political control or alter the addressing system in such a way as to impede its function.
Nations Could Create Their Own Closed Nets
Authorities in Iran, for example, are said to be considering a partial separation from the Internet, creating instead a national Internet that connects to the global Internet in ways that only the Iranian authorities can control.
"We could see a fragmentation of the Internet," says James Lewis, director of the Technology and Public Policy Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
He adds, "You would have choke points at which you would have to be approved, just like with passports in the airports. Someone would look and say, 'Am I going to let you into my country?' "
A country could do this by developing its own computer address file, such that servers in that country would be assigned addresses separately from the global root file now in use. Incoming or outgoing queries would have to go through a server with access to that special national file. Some requests for Internet address numbers would get answered; others would not.
The establishment of a national Internet might even put a country in a better position to fight a cyberwar. Right now, a global Internet connection leaves a country exposed to cyber-retaliation in the event it launches a cyberattack.
"But if you could figure out some way to insulate yourself," Lewis says, "you would be less uncertain about the consequences of your attack, and therefore, more willing to launch them."
Of course, there's a downside to a country taking itself off the global Internet. Nations benefit economically, scientifically and culturally from being part of a larger community.
"It's the network effect," Beckstrom says. "And the truth is, there's never been a greater network on the planet Earth than the Internet. So as much as people want to talk about fragmenting [the Internet], they've really only done it on a test basis. Why? Because you cut yourself off from the rest of the world. You lose the network effect."
Competing For The Reins
The Internet, however, could be politicized in other ways. Stephen Spoonamore, a cyber-entrepreneur with extensive experience in China, thinks that country's leaders dream about commanding the Internet, not separating from it.
"The Chinese I.T. guys I've met are really smart dudes and gals — and they're good," Spoonamore says. "And they look at this and go, 'Hmm, that [separation] would limit us. I would rather do something more sophisticated, like control every switch in the world and every search in the world.' "
Many Internet experts doubt that China, or any country, could put itself in a situation where it could control Internet switching and user searches. To do that, China or another country would have to take over ICANN's functions and then deepen its reach into actual Internet operations.
But Spoonamore says it could happen.
"Technically, not hard," Spoonamore says. "Policywise, I think it's a big lift to try to get it to happen. But I've done quite a bit of work in China, and I have huge respect for their ability to say, 'This is going to be the big lift, and we'll dedicate a decade to getting the big lift done.' "
For now, it's hard to imagine such a takeover. But the Internet has evolved in ways that no one 20 years ago could have foreseen.
And no one really knows how it will evolve in the future — or who, if anyone, will control it. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.