Myth #35: The Internet is an Internet.
Sebastian Gießmann

Myth: The Internet is a ‘network of networks’. It connects heterogeneous elements, not just technically, but also socially and economically. This set-up ensures universal connec-tivity and interoperability and has implications for peer-to-peer networking approaches and ideals for realizing democratic values in a network of equals.


Busted: The Internet we have is not an Internetwork of heterogeneous networks, as coun-terintuitive as it might seem. Network protocols are infrastructure, and infrastructure is boring, bureaucratic and usually taken for granted. Yet developers and administrators of network protocols know about the social and relational character of digital infrastructure, and what is at stake politically in the design of network protocols (#4). In a 2006 inter-view, computer scientist David Reed made some 1980s political choices of protocol devel-opers transparent: “In fact, the idea of pursuing a thing called ‘the Internet’ (an ur-network-of-networks) was a political choice – that universal interoperability was achieva-ble and desirable. It’s parallel to ‘One Europe’ or ‘World Government’, though not the same. The engineers involved were not ignorant of the potential implications at the politi-cal level of that choice” (Reed in Gillespie 2006, 452). Reed’s argument is somewhat typi-cal of the values that influenced the design of Internet protocols and its end-to-end archi-tecture. It also misses one important historical point.

‘Universal interoperability’ depends on standardization, and network protocols form the de facto standards of digital mediation. On 1 January 1983, TCP/IP, the Transmission Control Program and Internet Protocol were imposed as a standard by the US Department of Defense. US universities followed that directive and gladly adopted TCP/IP. What did that transition within the ARPAnet achieve? Computer scientist John Day argues that within that infrastructural shift the Internetworking layer actually got lost. Picture Day’s central argument not in all its subtlety, but in its consequences when he asks “How in the heck do you lose a layer?”. He stresses that the split of TCP and IP “contributed to being an Internet in name only” (Day 2013, 22).

Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) and other internetworking approaches took into ac-count that interconnected networks could be based on completely different technologies and addressing schemes (#15). But the Internet Protocol created only one address space for all connected networks; and today’s Domain Name System has been built along that path dependency (#38). You can still hook up any other network with obscure protocols to the Internet as long as it uses the ruling IP addressing system. The 1990s slo-gan “IP on everything” did not create an ur-network-of-networks. It rather reinforced the loss of what would have been an internetworking layer in a scientifically sound and tech-nically interoperable network architecture. Currently, we need to live with that flaw. The Internet is not a space for heterogeneous networking of heterogeneity that so many peo-ple still think: “OSI had an Internet Architecture and the Internet has a Network Architec-ture” (Day 2012, 15).


Truth: Ever since the internetworking layer got lost in 1983, the Internet’s architecture depends on a homogeneous system of naming and addressing. The domain name system DNS does exactly that, creating one seamless space for IP addresses that needs to be cen-trally administered, even if domain registration procedures are decentralized. The current Internet does not interconnect completely heterogeneous networks, but remains just one single network on the level of naming and addressing. So when will we have a real Inter-network?


Source: John Day, How in the Heck Do You Lose a Layer!?, Future Network Architectures Workshop University of Kaiserslautern, 2012, and John Day, Surviving Networking’s Dark Ages or How in the Hell Do You Lose a Layer!? (IRATI RINA Workshop, Barcelona, 2013),; Tarleton Gillespie, Engineering a Principle: “End-to-End” in the Design of the Internet, Social Studies of Science 36 (3) (2006), 427-457.