Who controls the Internet?

Decentralization means the Internet is controlled by many. It’s millions of devices linked together in an open network. No one actor can own it, control it, or switch it off for everyone.

The Internet and the World Wide Web remain the biggest decentralized communication system humanity has ever seen. This was very much a part of the design: the inventors of the Web wished for all people to be able to create and access information.

But the benefits of a decentralized Internet are eroding. When we concentrate our online activity on just a few social networks and messaging apps – as billions of us do – it narrows our experience of the Web to one where we are pointed only at content that appeals to our likes in search results and social media streams. Here, we are consumers rather than creators.

The Internet remains decentralized, but the things we do on it every day are controlled by just a handful of global technology giants. These companies are starting to look more and more like monopolies of the past. Given the importance of the Internet in our lives, this is not healthy.

Skip to data visuals

Healthy

The Web is thriving beyond the “walled gardens” of social media. Over 1 billion websites exist as a result of the decentralized domain name system (DNS) that catalogues all Web addresses. Around 27% of these websites are powered by WordPress, an open source content management system that is free and easy to use, even without coding skills.

A core principle of the Internet is that all content online should be treated the same. This is known as “net neutrality”. For profit motives, many telcos would prefer to charge different prices and offer different speeds for different types of content, which prevents users from freely choosing their online experience. So it’s healthy for the Internet that laws to protect net neutrality have surfaced in many countries, including India, the US and EU.

At the governance level, it’s worth noting that the US government gave up control of the Internet’s Domain Name System (DNS) in 2016. They officially handed this oversight role to the non-profit, ICANN, which convenes stakeholders from private, public and non-profit sectors around the world. The handover was mostly a formality, but it represents a global commitment to a decentralized Web.

Technologically, a new generation of software developers are dreaming up applications that build and reward decentralization. An example is peer-to-peer computer networks that employ “blockchains” –– the stuff that powers the cryptocurrency Bitcoin – for transactions of money, goods and services. And maybe someday, an Internet that doesn’t require Web servers.

Unhealthy

A small handful of companies – including Facebook, Google, Apple, Tencent, AliBaba and Amazon – dominate the global Internet sector. While these companies provide hugely valuable  services to billions of people, they are also consolidating control over human communication and wealth at a level never before seen in history.

Think of smartphones, where just two companies, Google (Android) and Apple (iOS), dominate the market. Everything from the phone’s operating system, to what applications can be purchased in their app stores, are ultimately controlled by these two companies. And speaking of apps – the global app economy is centered in just a few high-income countries (95% of the value is from just 10 countries) with emerging economies accounting for only 1% of app value.

Internet acquisitions by the tech giants feed consolidation. Facebook for instance, controls most of the messaging market in almost every country except China since acquiring WhatsApp and Instagram in addition to their own Facebook Messenger.

In China, WeChat is the dominant player. It is used for messaging by more than 90% of mobile Internet users in major cities. WeChat is also used for dating, banking, ordering taxis, shopping and more. It is a daunting degree of centralization, where the app takes the place of mostly anything you would do on the decentralized Web. This kind of seamless experience is also desired by other app developers. It’s not healthy for the Internet. It destroys competition, and gives one company intimate knowledge of the movements and likes of all its users.

Not concerned? Even where online freedom appears to exist [nod to Edward Snowden] many tech companies are compelled to respond to government requests for private information.

Prognosis

The decentralized Web is thriving by some measures, but we are heading towards a future of vertically integrated silos controlled by a few large players.

For a healthier Internet, we need to find ways to reinforce decentralization. We need healthy competition for entrepreneurs to thrive and for users to have meaningful choices. But competition policies and legal structures of yesterday are ill equipped to handle all of the dynamics of today. Some of the more effective solutions may be technical.

Today, we don’t expect one kind of video chat software to interoperate with another. This would only be possible if all the software in this category adhered to the same open standards. There could be rules or best practices to govern standards that would support more diverse markets. New innovators would be able to write software that works with what everyone already has.

Deciding that users should be able to move their personal data freely from one online platform to another is another example of something that would give everyone more agency and choice.

Decentralization is key to ensuring that the Internet remains a public resource that is healthy and available to all of us – and that it is not controlled by a tiny handful of governments and companies. If we can do this, there is good likelihood that the Internet remains a force for human freedom and creativity. If not, the future will likely be more dystopian.

Data visuals

Net neutrality

Equal access to online content

“Net neutrality” laws are on the rise worldwide.

Net neutrality is the principle that every website is shown on equal terms to others. When Internet providers can restrict or favor access to certain sites or apps (for profit) it can mean less choice for users and tough times for small websites. Laws to protect the open Web are needed.

Search engines

More searches happen on Google than on all other search engines combined.

Google’s lead is largest on mobile phones, with a market share of 93.76%. The landscape is more diverse on desktops, but Google is basically how most people explore the Web. It gives the company an unmatched advantage in sales of online ads that present things to people based on personal interests.

Desktop search engine market share

Mobile/tablet search engine market share

Social networks

Concentration of ownership

Facebook has the most active users of any social network: 1.7 billion worldwide.

Networks like Facebook, WhatsApp and WeChat serve important social functions that people value highly. But they are largely closed gardens, controlled by a handful of companies that have outsize influence over what people see and do online.

Browsers

Market share of browsers

Google Chrome dominates the browser market.

On desktop computers 62% use Chrome, followed by 15% using Firefox. On mobiles, Google Chrome and Apple’s Safari are leading. The browser is the central gateway to the Web, so it matters that there is competition and that there are options built around values like choice and transparency.

Desktop browser market share

Mobile/tablet browser market share

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