“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn't understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had.” - Eric Schmidt
Almost everyone in the world uses the internet. It allows us to find information about anything we want to learn, to download and watch media from around the world, to organize our daily tasks and to meet new people wherever they may be. The internet has enabled us to connect with others in many different ways. But ironically, not many understand how it works.
Similar to people knowing how to drive a car, but not really understand how it’s built, the internet is used daily, yet many do not realize the dependencies it takes to get the internet to work as simply as it does. What makes it possible for us to consume multimedia on one single platform? Why was the internet invented and who controls it?
What Is The Internet?
According to Explain That Stuff, the internet is an “intricately linked worldwide computer network that has connected over 200+ countries all over the world”. The internet is a collection of independent computers (networks / servers from hosting companies, schools and businesses) that are loosely connected together to share information. During the very slow dial-up phase of the 90s and early 2000s, these computers were wired through telephone lines called circuit switching.
Circuit switching meant that you can only connect one at a time, either telephone use or online only, not both. I found this timeline of the internet frustrating because it is easy to get disconnected whenever someone calls. If you try to download a file and suddenly get cut off, you would have to keep restarting from the beginning because during that time, there was no file continuation option in addition to it being really sluggish. Thankfully, by the early-2000s, dial-up connections were replaced by fiber optic cables and satellites that tremendously increased the speed and performance of transferring data.
What Is The Internet Made Of?
Coming from W3C, the community that sets the standards for the internet, “most pages of the World Wide Web is written in HTML and passed around using a protocol called HTTP”. Many may recognize HTTP or Hyper Text Transfer Protocol as the first four-letters you type when visiting a website, but what exactly is it for? In simple terms, HTTP sets the rules and foundation for the internet.
HTTP makes it possible for clients (a browser in your computer) to connect to a universal network and start a request for a webpage. For example, a simple website may have some contents, an image and a title. Those three items are hosted / stored on a web server. Your client forwards a request to those items in packets called packet switching, which replaced the circuit switching of the 90s.
Think of packets like digital mail parcels that contain information of your request that includes the IP address of the web server your client is requesting the page from and the IP address of your computer. Every website has an IP address aliased by a domain name system or DNS to make people remember it better.
Devices called routers and switches send the packet from your client to the web server. The web server’s duty is to find the webpage you want using the IP address requested from the packet and sends it back to the computer to be displayed in your browser. This part is called a response from the server.
To further explain what happens during a response, let us backtrack to when the packet is delivered to the server. The web server opens the packets your client has requested. Typically, there are hundreds or thousands of packets per request. If a webpage has an image, the image is broken down to smaller packets that include information on how they should be put back together to be displayed, where they are going and where they came from.
This process is known as TCP/IP or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. TCP/IP is the “control system” or a standardized method of the internet to make sure that everything gets done properly. IP is the internet’s addressing system (acts like our home or work address in the real world). In the early days, IPv4 is the original version that may look like 184.108.40.206. With so many new websites appearing every day, a new IPv6 version was created in January 2011 to uniquely identify websites by having longer digits and characters such as FE80:0000:0000:0000:0202:B3FF:FE1E:8329.
Once the server has found every packet requested, that is when the router and switches directs the information back to the client’s browser using TCP/IP. The role of the router is to find the fastest route for each packet that may arrive at different times on each page load. When you use the internet, you can observe that this process of sending a request and receiving a response happen in less than a second.
Many people may take this complex sending and receiving for granted because it all happens in a flash that you do not even notice it. But because it has become a daily part of our lives, don’t you think it is important to know how and when it began? Doesn’t the internet make our lives simple yet complex at the same time? Why?
No one really "controls" the internet because everyone has "control" of the internet.