Video Overview by Nic Suzor:Layers of the Internet

In order to understand how the internet operates, and how regulation can operate in this context, it is important to understand the different layers of the internet. Network engineers generally conceptualise up to seven layers of the internet and distinguish between the physical pipes, network infrastructure and many other components of the network. However, for the purposes of this unit, we will conceptualise the internet in terms of three main layers: infrastructure, code and content.

The first layer of the internet is the 'infrastructure' layer (network cables, routers, and protocols). This layer of the Internet is designed around the principle of a 'neutral' network ('end-to-end' principle): the responsibility for determining the content of communications rests with smart servers and users at the ends of the network, and the intermediaries are just responsible for passing messages along the chain. Intermediaries are expected not to examine or intefere with content, in any substantive way, as it passes through their networks. The design principle that intermediaries are merely conduits for passing messages enables innovation at the infrastructure level. As the network itself is open, there is a real separation between the infrastructure (the pipes) and content (the data that flows over those pipes), which means that anyone is free to 'plug-in' to the internet and start providing services over the IP protocol and the hardware that connects all users together. Service providers can design new systems that can operate on top of standardised protocols.

The second layer can be thought of as the 'code' layer - that is, the software that operates at the ends of the network to interact with users. The webserver that sends users the webpages they requested, customised and tailored for that particular user, is a software program running on a server or farm of servers. The applications ('apps') that connect people to others, that allow users to chat, like, comment on and swipe content created by others, are pieces of software running on mobile devices and personal computers that communicate with software running on the servers somewhere in 'the cloud'. These programs, including their design, the input they accept, the algorithms they use to respond to requests, are responsible for determining who we can communicate with and how.

The third layer of the internet is content, or the material that is transmitted over the network infrastructure, selected and presented by code. The information that users express and receive over the internet and the visible components of its networks are largely what we envision when we think of 'the internet'. This content layer is where most regulatory concerns arise because governments and private actors often have reasons to want to limit the flow of certain information over the internet.

The history of internet regulation is mostly a history of attempts by various parties to regulate content, including offensive communications and pornography, private and confidential information, defamatory statements and copyright content. Increasingly, however, attempts to regulate content involve struggles at the code and infrastructure layers as pressure mounts on those who provide network infrastrucutre or services to build certain rules into their systems. The most prominent struggles over internet governance are principally concerned with who gets to decide how networks are structured and how code operates.

Video Overview by Nic Suzor:Internet Infrastructure

The resilience of the internet is often framed in John Gilmore's famous words, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”1) To understand this claim, we have to understand some principles about how the internet works. The Internet is often defined as a 'network of networks'. Wikipedia has a good definition:

The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite (TCP/IP) to link several billion devices worldwide. It is a network of networks that consists of millions of private, public, academic, business, and government networks of local to global scope, linked by a broad array of electronic, wireless, and optical networking technologies.

The Internet as we know it is built on technologies funded by the US Department of Defence, large public investments in infrastructure by academic and other institutions and, from the 1990s, large-scale private investments in the deployment of new commercial and private connections around the world. From its very beginnings, the internet was designed to be resilient. One of its key features is that it relies on an inter-connected web of computers to route information from any point to any other point on the internet. Take, for example, a user in Australia sending a message via Facebook. The user might write a message on their home computer or mobile device, the message us then transmitted along an ISP's network a few times before hitting a major backbone or undersea cable, and then passed along the chain by several other networked routers before finally reaching its destination at a webserver in the US. The process of sending a Facebook message could take anywhere from 10 to 20 different 'hops' along that chain. Facebook's webserver in the US will receive that request, and send back the content to the user along a similar, but not necessarily the same, path.

One reason why the internet is hard to regulate is that messages can take any path between the two end points. Internet infrastructure is designed to resist control and automatically re route around problems, such as broken links, when and where they might occur. For instance, individual messages are broken down into much smaller 'packets', and the 'Internet Protocol' (IP) provides the standard for communication that enables all connected systems to talk to each other and pass data along the chain. If any link in this chain is broken, the Internet Protocol allows computers on the Internet to find other routes to get the message to its destination. This is where we get to Gilmore's quote: if a particular path is blocked or censored, it is often possible to pass a message along different paths to its destination.

Kyung Hong explains peer-to-peer networking

  • Some networks are more easy to regulate than others. When networks are organised as 'client/server' networks, targeting the server can be very effective. When they are more decentralised, as in 'peer-to-peer' (P2P) networks, this becomes much more difficult.

Tom Armstrong and Mitch Hughes each explain how this works in relation to Australians accessing Netflix, bypassing industry agreements that require geographic market segmentation of content:

One way of avoiding regulation online is through the use of a Virtual Private Network (VPN). A VPN can create an encrypted 'tunnel' from an entry point in one jurisdiction, to an exit point in another. By using a VPN, a user can appear to be located in another jurisdiction. This means the user can avoid any jurisdiction-based filtering or blocking, and also make it much more difficult to track down his or her real location and other identifying information.

Philip Elmer-Dewitt, ‘First Nation in Cyberspace’ (1994) 49 TIME International
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