Who are these people who control the internet?

18. November 2022

CRC sociologist René Tuma in conversation with Brenda Strohmaier

Access to the internet has long been considered as essential as water and electricity supply; the UN declared online communication a human right several years ago. But despite its enormous social importance, not much is known about the administrative infrastructure behind it, i.e. who exactly controls the infrastructure of the net and what kind of ideas guide them. The subproject B02 “Control/Space” wants to change that, as project member René Tuma explains.

Brenda Strohmaier: You were just in Belgrade for your project. Why can you learn something about the global internet there of all places?

René Tuma: We were at a conference of the RIPE network, which is one of the internet organizations that distribute IP addresses. We want to find out who these people are who interconnect data lines and decide what flows there. We are therefore particularly interested in the operators of Internet nodes, so-called Internet Exchange Points, IXPs in short. Sometimes such a node consists of a single cabinet in a data center, others, like the De-Cix in Frankfurt, are spread over dozens of data centers. Each of these IXPs is controlled by someone, and the operators have to negotiate among themselves where they send the data packets and according to which rules. Such questions were also on the agenda in Belgrade.

BS: You as sociologists are sitting there among the techies. Do you even understand anything?

RT: By now we do. But we first had to get to grips with the various protocols, encryptions, technical solutions and all the abbreviations. But if we don’t understand something, we ask, that’s the idea. This also builds on the project of the previous phase, in which we investigated control rooms such as those of traffic control centers, the police and the fire brigade.

BS: But what exactly is interesting about these negotiations around technical details?

RT: Ultimately, these are power struggles that have a very concrete impact on infrastructure and access to information. You’ve probably heard of the Chinese Firewall, which China uses to block sites like Facebook and Google. Russia is also trying to build something like that, Runet is the name of their planned network. In Belgrade, the specific question was whether the Russians are also stealing Ukrainian IP addresses in their attack on Ukraine. We are not only interested in the discussions themselves, but also in the leitmotifs behind them. We definitely see that the idea of a unified, universally accessible internet is getting competition from other ideas.

BS: Like the Splinternet….

RT: …Or the Balkanization of cyberspace. Fittingly, there was a lot of talk about this in Serbian Belgrade. It is not only state actors who are pushing for a segmentation of the net. Companies like Facebook and Google are also trying to build their own empires. In any case, ideas have changed enormously since the early 1990s, when the US government under Bill Clinton promoted the expansion of the internet into a “data highway”. Up until then, the net had been run by small communities and the military. Suddenly, everyone was supposed to be able to ride around on it.

BS: I’d love to read a study on how the Chinese view the internet. I’m sure their conceptions are very different from ours, if only because of the power of the WeChat app, which you can even use to identify yourself and make a payment.

RT: That would be exciting, especially because discourses about the net are currently still very Western-dominated. But it’s difficult to do research in China because of the political situation, so we’re taking a closer look at what the ideas of the internet look like in India. But we are still at the beginning, also with our idea of looking at the whole thing from a feminist perspective. But we know that within the male-dominated net community, there are demands for more diversity and a female perspective.

BS: What insights do you hope to gain from a view of the net based in spatial theory?

RT: The current debate is mostly about the connection between territories and networks. Here at the CRC, we have more models to describe both physical reality and cultural spaces. For example, we are also interested in pathways on the net, that is, the transport of data from A to B along a certain route, whether within a network or between two entities. The new Silk Road is a nice example of this. Parallel to new train lines in the Central Asian states around Russia, data lines are also being laid and data centers are being built, all financed by China, which shuts itself away so strongly. This shows that we can discover new and exciting aspects with our somewhat more complex spatial model.

BS: You also want to represent the internet visually. So what does it look like?

RT: Those who work on the net make it accessible to themselves visually, albeit in very different ways. We have collected dozens of different maps. Many show submarine cables, while others show how freely countries exchange data with each other or which territories close themselves off. Others show where a lot of traffic accumulates in certain places. We believe that we can uncover cultural imaginations through such visualizations. Ultimately, we want ourselves to get a more precise idea of this significant but elusive technical-spatial infrastructure.

The Tor Network. Illustration by Ulrike Uhlig / ARTICLE19, CC-BY-NC 4.0,

Dr. René Tuma is a research associate at the Faculty of Planning Building Environment at TU Berlin.

Dr. Brenda Strohmaier is a journalist, urban sociologist, and freelance curator at the Berlin educational institution Urania.