It’s interesting that you will seldom, if ever, get asked this question from younger people, and that could probably be the basis of some stimulating social study. The answer to the question, though, is far more involved than you might think.
The two popular answers to the question — “Nobody” and “The users themselves” — are almost certainly wrong, although the latter may have contained grains of truth at one time. To suggest that “nobody” controls something as complex and wide-reaching as the internet is to equate anarchy with a functional form of government: where there is structure, there is control, and the internet is definitely structured, albeit loosely.
The internet has always had guiding influences wielding a certain level of control over it: in the earliest days, it was DARPA, the arm of the US military devoted to research. When the ARPAnet became the internet, the majority of its control was passed to the NSF. This was the time when business interests were largely prohibited from using the internet. As the net became more global, it became increasingly seen as inappropriate for a US research body to wield executive power over it, and the control of it gradually began to devolve again, although ironically, mostly to US business interests.
And this, in essence, is where we are now. Such control as can be exerted on the internet is now exerted on it by business interests — big business interests. In New Zealand we have the recent initiative by the world’s largest software company, Microsoft, and New Zealand’s largest service provider, Telecom, to form an all-encompassing “service”, of which a primary and significantly unadvertised side-effect will be to make life very difficult for smaller service providers. The two masters of “embrace and absorb” meta-competitive business realpolitik are up to their old tricks, and so far I haven’t heard the rustle of the Commerce Commission turning in their sleep.
But nowhere is there a better example of big business attempting to seize control than in the fiasco of ICANN, the supposedly international body controlling the allocation and resolution of internet domain names. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to find any legislative basis for ICANN — I can’t work out how it came into existence: like so much of the internet, it appears to be ad hoc.
ICANN is primarily interesting in the parallels it presents with the Fascist governments of the 1920s and 30s: its board barely even bothers paying lip-service to its constituents, and regularly changes its own rules to ensure its self-perpetuation: for instance, by progressively marginalising the roles of its “at large” (or publicly elected) representatives, and regularly extending the terms for its non-elected board members. ICANN’s board, to all appearances, is simply a front for some very big business interests, most notably a firm called VeriSign, that controls the immensely lucrative .com registry.
ICANN is a perfect example of how infeasible democracy really is as a form of government. Nothing guarantees less progress than letting people get involved in making the important decisions — everything gets mired down in unending wrangle because nobody can agree or is willing to make concessions. If you want to see this in action, simply look at any busy news group, or become a member of the local ISOCNZ organisation and try following the mailing lists for a few weeks. “The people” are inherently incapable of governing themselves, and where there is a power vacuum, there will always be other interests willing to step in.
I don’t know which of these two phenomena is more alarming: on the one hand, you have big business attempting to control the content of the internet, while on the other, you see it trying to control the structure. Whichever is worse, I find it almost amusingly ironic that in the space of only 10 years, the internet has gone from being anti-profit under the guidance of the NSF, to being purely profit-driven by the business sector — or rather, it would be amusing if it weren’t worrying.
I realise this column is full of sweeping and largely unsubstantiated generalisations: this is the curse of the word limit, which prevents me from properly expanding more complex ideas. But if any of what I have said has lit so much as the tiniest spark of interest in your mind, I strongly recommend you read Voltaire’s Bastards, by John Ralston Saul. While not in any way about the internet, the parallels regarding power and control are striking, and you will go a long way before finding a more thought-provoking book.