only in cyberspace is the public all private

In an article for BBC News Online, technology analyst Bill Thompson enthuses about all the new services using the Google Maps API but points out, and rightly so, that these services rely upon the goodwill of Google for their existence. Google retains the copyright over the information, in this instance mapping data, that these services utilise and could easily decide to stop the use of this data, or charge for it’s use, at anytime.

But this isn’t just a problem with Google Maps and other sites that make their data available to third party developers.

Whilst most of us think of the Internet as a public space, accessible to anyone who has a PC with the ability to connect to it, it is, in fact, one of the most privatised places in existence.

To go online, one must rely upon an ISP to provide them with a connection. With only rare exceptions, these ISPs are commercial organisations, primarily interested in making money from service subscriptions. Once you’re connected to the internet, you need a web browser, email programme, or other software to do what you want to do. This, again, is likely to be a commercial product although there are notable open source and/or freeware exceptions. When you type a URL into your browser, that request is sent to the Root DNS [ how it works ] servers maintained by private companies on behalf of the US Government which retains control over this vital part of the internet. If you don’t know the URL of the site you are looking for, you have to rely upon a search engine such as google to find it – giving them control over what you do, and don’t, find. Once a DNS server or search engine gets you where you want to go, that information is, more often then not, held on commercial web space. Even if it’s not, for example a university or government website, the site will still be paying someone, for example a telecommunications company, for the bandwidth they use.

So from the second you connect to the internet, you’re actually navigating through a plethora of corporately controlled, owned, and operated wires, routers, servers and sites.

The internet isn’t Speakers Corner in London’s Hyde Park, where anyone can turn up and have their say, it’s more like a concert with tickets available only through ticketmaster and simulcast on pay-per-view.

With the importance of the internet to private individuals and communities increasing all the time, isn’t it kind of scary that those who use the network, and who increase it’s value by doing so, don’t actually own or control it?