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What is the Internet?

In a defensive mode following FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s press conference, agency spokesperson Kim Hart repeated a common misconception to the effect that the service provided by Internet Service Providers is not part of the Internet, but simply provides access to it. “Broadband providers are not the Internet,” Hart told reporters. “The draft order ensures cable companies and broadband providers don’t have the power to act as gatekeepers to the Internet.” Rhetorically, the false dichotomy that ISPs are either “the Internet” or “gatekeepers to the Internet” is easily discarded because they are both – and neither. Internet Service Providers are in fact parts of the Internet, just as content delivery networks, transit networks, and office networks are parts of the Internet. This is a fact of technology. The Internet Society says the Internet is a network of networks that, in their totality, interconnect computers with each other. When we browse the web from a laptop, the software on the laptop interacts with software on the web server to fetch text and pictures from various sources (not just the server that hosts the web site), display them on the laptop, and potentially inform other sites (such as advertisers) about the interaction. When we conference with Skype, both parties use laptops that form parts of the vast international mesh of networks that connect us. When we share files with peer-to-peer software, our computers function both as clients and servers of files.  We attach our computers to the Internet when we plug in our Ethernet cables or when we connect to our Wi-Fi access points. The purpose of the connection is to join the Internet, not simply to consume it. The Internet it not a unified bulletin board or a centralized system like AOL; it’s a flat, distributed mesh of co-equal systems and networks that cooperate to move information from points of origin to points of interest.  The Internet is therefore not a single physical object, but an information mesh in which all end points are equal. If this were not the case, the concept of neutral networks would have no meaning. As users, it’s important to understand what the Internet is and what it isn’t, or we will never be able to perform the tasks demanded of us in terms of network security or realize the opportunities afforded by the Internet’s unique organization. It’s obviously vital for those who regulate the Internet in whole or in part to understand how it is organized, even if doing so may erode their authority. The FCC’s proposed “Open Internet” rules address interconnection agreements between networks, and surely even a naïve press spokesperson should acknowledge that these agreements apply to mechanisms deeply embedded in the fabric of the network of networks. If the FCC isn’t addressing the Internet’s norms, practices, and standards of conduct, why does it call its rules “Open Internet” orders?  
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