Why should anyone care where the internet comes from? You log on to your computer daily, hourly, minutely. But do you know where the data is streaming from? Or how it works? Do you even care?
Journalist Andrew Blum explained to the Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program, why you should care about where the internet comes from. This is the second part of our interview with Blum. For part one, click here.
“The internet is the dominant means by which we get information. It has replaced the telephone, cable television and yet there is no understanding of where it comes from. Plus, as the competition for information heats up, there is more and more a threat over who controls the internet. If Comcast blocks Netflix, what happens? What are the specifics? What do we want to watch? Who is controlling the pipes? What piece connects to what piece? Is it the congestion in the last mile? Or is it about the link between our ISP’s network and the content providers network? We don’t know any of that for the most part,” said Blum.
Does it really matter if we know where the internet comes from?
“Just as over the last 10 or 15 years there has been a growing awareness about where our food comes from and the hazards whether it be environmental or health-wise or moral or whatever it is. I do think there will be a growing awareness about where internet comes from,” said Blum.
Who has the data, the government?
“We are in the middle right now of news that NSA is handing over phone meta data from Verizon. There is a big uproar about it. There will be scrutiny and investigations about it. But what is striking to me is that we give so much information already to the companies that we depend on for internet. We don’t expect any real transparency from them. And that is a huge cognitive dissonance I think on the part of how much information we are willingly handing over for “free.” It is almost like we are watching doctors smoke on television. We don’t quite realize how strange this is yet. But it is striking that there is this sort of naive sense that the internet companies are in it for our own good. We know with power companies, oil companies, chemical companies – we know what we don’t like about them. We know what the hesitations are. We are not quite there yet with the companies that provide us internet,” said Blum.
Government having the data is scary but somehow Google having the data is not scary?
“That confuses me enormously. With government there is oversight, there is scrutiny, there are some checks and balances regardless of the ways in which those are followed. Then of course when they aren’t followed there is an uproar. But many of us willingly hand over all of our correspondence, link to our web inquiries, all of our web searches to a company that refuses to acknowledge fully what it is doing with that information,” said Blum.
Tell me about the underwater cables?
“If you are accessing a website from Europe or an international phone call, those messages are traveling through a relatively small number of garden hose size cables across the Atlantic or Pacific within which are an even smaller number four or six or eight strands of fiber-optic glass,” said Blum.
You saw the laying of the cables across the ocean firsthand?
“It was a cable to Africa. I saw it land is Lisbon. I had been looking really hard for somebody who had a new cable going up on the beach, found it with Tata Communications. They are an American group based out of Virginia. I got about four days notice. They said, on Monday morning a guy will walk out of the water carrying a messenger line – a lightweight nylon line – which is the first link between sea and land. That is brought out to a special cable landing ship on a skiff. They reel in the line followed by the cable. They load them on buoys. The diver then goes back in the water and cuts the buoys off. The buyoes pop up in the air and the cables drops down to the ocean floor. He does that the whole way out to the ship. They give him a glass of juice and a cookie and he swims back to shore. That’s the first link. Once that is connected to the piece on the beach, the ship steams off about 3,000 miles paying cable out the rear,” said Blum.
What was most surprising?
“I think what was most surprising was how small this world is of the people who run the internet. Which is to say the people that connect the networks. I was at Microsoft a company of 65-70,000 employees. I asked how many people are involved in running your global data network, the answer was 200. I asked, how many of those 200 people are responsible for connecting your data network with other data networks? The answer was 2. It is that small of a tribe. It runs on trust. The network engineers connect their networks to the network operator by other engineers they can trust. People who are clue-full the opposite of clueless. That personalness of it, the strength of those social ties, is really surprising to me,” said Blum.
“I spent a lot with the North American Network Operators Group (NANOG – Community). They meet three times a year. They literally go to conferences to connect their networks to each other. They do it because they act as sort of diplomats. They have to know each other. They have to trust each other. It is not just about running and building my own network, it is nothing unless I connect it to other people’s networks,” said Blum.
Shocking that this works?
“What is amazing to me, I spent a lot of time with the peering coordinators. The people who are responsible for connecting as peers. They operate in their own little world. They try as much as possible to keep their corporate lawyers out of it. To keep the business folks out of it. To sort of allow their connections to operate strictly as logical terms, so that they can serve the needs of their network. It was a world that hadn’t really been written about or exposed. My argument was that these connections are in a way public. These are the connections we rely on. And yet I got some blowback from some peering coordinators who said, “This is private speech.” But there is some missing recognition that as these peering links become more and more important to what we do everyday, they need to be looked at. We need to demand some scrutiny,” said Blum.
Blum and Dorobek’s discussion was part of FCW’s “what’s now and what’s next” series.