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Last Updated: Friday, 16 September 2005, 17:25 GMT 18:25 UK
Who rules cyberspace?
Computer user
Do you know who is really in control of how you use the net?
Who is really in charge of cyberspace? It is tempting to suggest that the answer, in what is often seen as an unruly democracy, is nobody and everybody.

But peer beneath the bonnet of your everyday internet experience and it is clear there are a number of players all vying for some degree of control.

There are governing bodies determining all aspects of the net but, of late, one area of internet governance has been getting a lot of people worked up.

It concerns the body that hands out domains - the addresses we use when we are online.

Overall responsibility for handing out domain names rests with the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, ICANN.

A non-profit international organisation, it handles top-level domains, like .com, .org and .biz, as well as looking after the root servers that keep the internet alive.

ICANN took this business over from the US Government, but even today many less developed countries say ICANN is still a creature of the American department of commerce.

But does anyone - can anyone - rule the names and addresses we use online?

Professor Richard Collins, who has written extensively on internet governance, says developing countries certainly feel left out of the loop about the key decisions.

'Disenfranchised'

"One of the things that's going on at the moment is a long lead-up to the world summit on the information society that takes place in Tunis in November.

"I've been going to some of the preparatory meetings in Geneva for what's called the WGIG - the Working Group on Internet Governments.

"It's very clear when one meets the delegates from all over the world that there's a very powerful groundswell of resentment and sense of exclusion from many countries."

Guy Kewney, a technology watcher for many years, agrees that the situation has generated a lot of hostility.

Laying cables in Africa
Investment into the internet depends on a critical mass of users
"As Richard says, you always find yourself in expensive locations around the world like Geneva for these conventions.

"That's where a lot of the poorer countries feel disenfranchised and a lot of the smaller players feel disenfranchised because they can't go to five consecutive meetings. They don't have the budget for it. The big players do."

And Professor Collins admits it is likely the US will ignore the findings in Tunis.

"The US has got the high ground. It holds the root's own files, servers, the infrastructure that really is at the core of internet addressing.

"On the other hand, about half the world's internet users are still in the United States. Most of the rest are in Western Europe and Japan and the adjacent developed areas of Asia.

The whole system of spyware and spyware controls - and the whole system of government monitoring of the internet - is not just broken, it's shredded
Guy Kewney
"For those locations, where most internet users are located, the present system more or less works well enough."

But Guy Kewney does not believe the system is not broken and therefore does not need fixing.

He adds: "What Richard is saying is that there are bits of it that are necessary parts of the machinery that are running nicely and are well oiled.

"But, as he very correctly says, there's not one engine in this. E-mail is badly broken. There's no easy way to put that.

"The whole system of spyware and spyware controls - and the whole system of government monitoring of the internet - is not just broken, it's shredded.

Infrastructure

The internet is a network of networks. And all these networks need hardware: fibre optics, routers and other equipment which lets computers talk to computers.

Telephone wires
Telecommunication companies can influence our connection speed
But who controls who has access to this hardware, and hence who can get online - and what price?

On a basic level, the key players here are the big telecommunication companies who pay to lay down the data cables.

They can then charge internet service providers for the bandwidth they use.

Their decisions on where to invest the internet backbone - the really high speed cables - has a direct impact on us: how fast our connection is and how much it costs.

In the US, Asia and most of Europe, with significant competition among ISPs, millions of users benefit from low-cost and high-speed access along the super-fast internet backbone.

But if there is not a critical mass of users in a particular place, say in Africa, then the investment will not be made.

Developing countries are getting a raw deal when hooking up to the net, admits Guy Kewney, but he says this is not necessarily anybody's fault.

"What you have to realise is that an awful lot of developing countries don't have telephone networks. We've built the internet around telephone networks: copper in the ground, fibre in the ground, microwave beacons.

If you don't have fluent, compulsive English, you're out of it; you can't play
Guy Kewney
"I know a lot of villages where the idea of getting a computer - just a computer in the village - would require them to install equipment which they don't have. They don't have the electricity generating power."

But, as Professor Collins says, the problem is not just a lack of power but also a lack of competition.

"It is competition, liberalisation of the market, allowing innovative technological solutions to come through," he says.

And, says Guy Kewney, "the other thing that is really worth considering in terms of why third-world companies feel disenfranchised is much simpler than that. It's English.

"We speak English naturally, and all the control programs in the internet are written in English languages. If you look at all the error messages, all the control prompts, everything, it's written in English.

"If you don't have fluent, compulsive English, you're out of it; you can't play, you have to sit there and let someone else do it for you."

Corporate power

Perhaps the most dramatic evolution of the net has been the way it has gone from something used by academics to a world which is now firmly in the gaze of big business.

Internet Explorer
Some people accuse Microsoft of having too much control
Certainly the dot.com madness has been and gone but, now that expectations have been tempered and lessons learned, the net is once again being seen as a vehicle to deliver profits as well as information.

And so we see the emergence of multi-billion dollar online companies: household names like Google, Yahoo and AOL.

We have seen in recent programmes how the large web players are trying to woo us with free utilities, which they hope will increase our loyalty and keep us coming back.

And what of companies like Microsoft, who provide the interface - the shop window - to our online world? Microsoft has long been the dominant force in the browser space.

While we have recently seen old kids back - and new kids on the block - proving they can make waves, it is a big ocean out there. With Internet Explorer, Microsoft still gets nine out of 10 internet users using its interface through its operating system.

Some may accuse Bill Gates of trying to take over the net, but he says he does not want control, simply to offer the best delivery system.

Professor Collins does not see it that way. "I do think that Microsoft, News Corporation, Oracle, Google - you can go down the list - are organisations about which one can have serious concerns.

The problem is not the road surface, it's a question of levying the tolls of the traffic that goes along it
Guy Kewney
"But let's not get panicked by it, because we've also got some very important cases where there's been effective regulatory intervention."

But Guy Kewney believes: "The problem is that it's not the road surface that people actually care about controlling. It's a question of levying the tolls of the traffic that goes along it.

"As far as Microsoft, Oracle, Google and the rest are concerned, the more traffic there is on the internet, the more money they can take out of it so they're not going to try to interfere in the way the infrastructure runs.

"What Google has twigged - that almost nobody else has twigged - is that it isn't an advertising system that works like television, where I decide how many people have I got watching and I will focus on the biggest section, for example it's a cricket match and we've got so many people from this economic society and strata.

"No, you can say to the individual viewer: 'I know what you want to buy this morning, because I know your habits. I've got all your e-mail, I've got all your links, your toolbar stuff. I know where you are. I've even got access to what you've bought online. And I happen to know that right now you feel like a cup of tea.'

"And it will put a link at the top saying: 'Cup of tea?'"

Professor Collins agrees that there is nothing wrong with that.

"I think you can see that as a service to the consumer. It makes life easier.

"As long as people are aware that this is happening, that it is properly labelled and people are properly informed about what is happening, fine, not a problem."


Click Online is broadcast on BBC News 24: Saturday at 2030, Sunday at 0430 and 1630, and on Monday at 0030. A short version is also shown on BBC Two: Saturday at 0645 and BBC One: Sunday at 0745 . Also BBC World.



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