The System, book review: How the internet works and who runs it

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The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us • By James Ball • Bloomsbury • 288 pages • ISBN: 978-1-52-660724-9 • £18 (hardback) / £14 (e-book)

It’s been a while since the last book explaining how the internet works. I believe it was was in 2012, when US Senator Ted Stevens’ (R-AK) characterization of the internet as “a series of tubes”, inspired Andrew Blum to write Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet to explore the network’s oft-forgotten physical underpinnings — a theme also taken up in Michael Lewis’s Flash Boys, which showed how physics helped high-frequency traders exploit the financial markets. Now, here is James Ball, with The System: Who Owns the Internet, and How It Owns Us, to examine the internet and power.

Internet history can be slippery. Contrary to expectations in the 1990s — and then again in 2011, crediting social media with the Arab Spring — the internet has not changed the world’s overall system. To understand why, Ball moves methodically through network layers, starting with architects (“the mechanics”), building through protocols and cables (“the cable guys”) to governance bodies (such as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN), venture capital, advertising intermediaries, intelligence agencies and their adversaries, regulators, and digital rights activists. 

Ball doesn’t try to be comprehensive: he discusses ICANN, which governs the domain name system, but not technical standards bodies such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), and while the Federal Trade Commission appears as a regulator, he’s interested in network neutrality, but not the failures of antitrust law to contain the internet’s monopolies. 

Origin stories

It says something about the speed of change and the scale of its development that a new book about how the internet works is now so