What makes the Internet – technical characteristics

This post is about exploring the fundamental technical characteristics of the Internet, from which we might be able to extrapolate some social characteristics in another post.

Many people are debating Internet intervention from a perspective of open vs closed Internet, but rarely does the debate go into specifics of what should or should not be off limits for intervention, let alone the rationale for not tweaking certain key characteristics that make the Internet a social and economic powerhouse and community enabler.

The draft definition below draws from many sources as well as from some wonderful contributors already, and it might – with some community input and tweaking – provide a useful way to better inform and possibly frame the debate about open vs closed Internet access.

The Internet ubiquitously distributes the power to publish, collaborate, monitor and even enforce, so it is a good point in history to define what constitutes the Internet and indeed some reasonable expectations online.

Please add your thoughts in the comments below and feel free to respond to and discuss with others. Add any references you think are important for this discussion.

Essential technical characteristics of the Internet

  • Open standards – open technical standards for connection and data exchange is a core aspect of the Internet, ensuring the capacity to communicate across different systems and platforms.
  • Common access – once a connection is made online, core aspects of the Internet are common to all (such as root name servers and communications protocols), and thus access provides a common experience, unless specifically tampered with or configured otherwise.
  • Peer to peer – the Internet isn’t a hierarchy, it is an enormous number of machines that talk to each other as peers, albeit usually configured to use a common addressing scheme.
  • Routing around damage – the distributed nature of the Internet means there is the capacity to work around any failure in the system. ┬áthis is extremely important for continuity of the online experience.
  • Massively distributed network – the Internet is designed to have no single point of failure, with many redundancies built in. This approach of a massively distributed stable platform for communications has led to the establishment of massively distributed infrastructure, controlled by no single entity.
  • Multi-source networks of trust – part of having a massively distributed network is the availability of multiple sources, especially when there are failures. How DNS works is an example of a technical multi-source network of trust.
  • Platform independence – Internet communication protocols are necessarily independent of the hardware and software stacks involved in being online, which means communications online are largely independent of the choice of device, hardware or software.

What are other technical characteristics of the Internet? Please note, we go into social characteristics in the next post in this section, so please keep it relatively technical.

3 thoughts on “What makes the Internet – technical characteristics

  1. I take the points about the technology on board but I think they’re largely irrelevant (even though that’s how I make my bread). All you have to assume, in the beginning, is the ability for a node anywhere to be able to send and receive data to and from other nodes anywhere. How this is done in now or in the future may change but the essential non-destructive transmission of data between two or more points will remain. Topologies are only important where they identify single-points-of failure and, consequently, single points of control and monitoring. Note the DNS system you use as an example of multi-source trust is actually an example (through US Gov control of the current TLDs) of a single point of control (SOPA etc).

    Typical “Social” products such as Facebook and Twitter also suffer from having central coordinating nodes now fully and constantly monitored by US Gov. For an initiative investigating better control over personal data, I would refer you to the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremie_Miller ‘s project http://lockerproject.org/ (Does this blog allow HTML?).

    I think the important discussions and thinking need to be around:
    1. How do we empower people everywhere to be able to securely contribute and receive to and from each other (at a level above the technology which would follow if necessary)?
    2. How do we enable these same people to easily form (and dissolve) nestable groups that provide broadcast facilities amongst members (I think Google+’s Circles are on the right path)?
    3. How do we reliably, securely provide real-time push so that people can be informed without having to act?
    4. How do we manage SPoF (using the equivalent of routing tables etc?)

    and many others


    PS: I understand you want technical points but I don’t think they’re a) controllable b) necessarily relevant

    • Thanks for that, some interesting points and references. I’m just about to blog about the social characteristics. Let’s continue on your specific points there. I maintain that the technical foundations of the network strengthen the argument for protecting the social foundations that have emerged, but thanks for your feedback :)

  2. Pingback: The Distributed Democracy – building a model for the future | Society 5

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