Defining how we at the Internet Society see the Internet is an important first step. When we think about the Internet, what comes to mind for many of us is something beyond the technology of the Internet itself. By definition, the Internet is a technical system: a communications infrastructure that enables networks around the globe to interconnect. It’s a network of networks. That said, over the past two decades, the Internet has come to mean far more than just the technology. With more than 4 billion people online today, the Internet is now an integral part of the social and economic fabric of many communities around the world.

In the text below, we identify the important properties that make the Internet such a powerful platform and describe what this means for the users of the Internet. This framework will help to guide us in considering the questions of consolidation in the Internet economy.

The Internet Society capitalises the term "Internet" to differentiate the global Internet from generic "internets," which can refer to any interconnected group of computer networks.1

Fundamental properties of the Internet

In the history of humankind, few technologies have resulted in such widespread social and economic change in a relatively short period of time. Growing nearly 900% from 400 million in 2000 to more than 4 billion users today,2 the Internet has had an unprecedented impact on economies and societies around the globe.

Conversely, the impact of the Internet on society has also transformed how we use the Internet. It is no longer just the home of email, static webpages, and discussion boards. Today’s Internet is so much more. It’s a dynamic space for collaboration, commerce, and expression. Video currently accounts for more than two-thirds of all Internet traffic, and people accessing the Internet via smartphones now dominate.

In spite of all this dynamism, certain properties of the Internet persist. These properties, which we call “invariants,” have been the foundation for the Internet since its earliest days. At the same time, it’s because of these invariants that the Internet has become such a dynamic resource. These characteristics are at the heart of the Internet’s success – they have enabled the Internet to serve as a platform for seemingly limitless innovation, economic growth and opportunities for people everywhere.

Internet Invariants – what really matters about the Internet3

Before detailing what we mean by Internet invariants, it is important to clarify that these fundamental, unchanging properties of the Internet are aspirational or ideal conditions. As the Internet moves away from these ideal conditions, we believe the dynamism and innovation that the Internet supports will necessarily diminish. You can think of the Internet as an idea of how networks of computers communicate, and the invariants describe the most important features of that idea. This concept of the Internet as an idea is operationalised through some familiar protocols (e.g., Internet Protocol, Border Gateway Protocol) and functions (e.g., the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority).

A network that does not have these fundamental properties is not the Internet.

The Internet has global reach and integrity, and is not constrained in terms of supported services and applications:

Global reach, integrity

Any endpoint of the Internet can address any other endpoint, and the information received at one endpoint is as intended by the sender, wherever the receiver connects to the Internet. Implicit in this is the requirement for globally-unique addressing and naming services.

General purpose

The Internet is capable of supporting a wide range of demands for its use. While some networks within it may be optimised for certain traffic patterns or expected uses, the technology does not place inherent limitations on the applications or services that make use of it. The Internet supports more than the World Wide Web and email.
The Internet is for everyone – there is no central authority that designates or permits different classes of Internet activities:

Supports innovation without requiring permission

Anyone can create a new service, that abides by the existing standards and best practices, and make it available to the rest of the Internet, without requiring special permission. This “permissionless innovation” is crucial to the Internet’s success — it removes the barriers to entry. From the World Wide Web to social networking, from BitTorrent to Bitcoins, many of the applications that billions of Internet users enjoy every day, and the many that will be developed in the future, are a product of this fundamental characteristic.

Accessible

There are no inherent limitations on who can access, build, and study the Internet. Anyone can connect to the Internet, not just to consume content from others, but also to contribute content on existing services, create new services, and attach entirely new networks.
The Internet requires some basic agreements and social behaviour between technologies and between humans:

Based on interoperability and mutual agreement

The Internet is a network of autonomous networks. It works because those networks can communicate with each other, based on voluntary adoption of the open standards for the technologies that support it, and through the mutual agreements made between network operators.

Collaboration

Overall, a spirit of collaboration is required. Beyond the initial basis for interoperability (open standards and mutual agreements), the best solutions to new issues that arise stem from willing collaboration between stakeholders. These are sometimes competitive business interests and sometimes different stakeholders altogether. Addressing new issues in a collaborative fashion ensures a diversity of views and reduces the risk of unilateral actions having unintended negative consequences for the Internet and its users.

Although no specific technology defines the Internet, there are some basic characteristics that describe what works:

Technology, reusable building blocks

The Internet is comprised of numerous technologies that together create the Internet as we know it today; however, each individual technology, or building block, may be used for unintended purposes. For example, the Domain Name System (DNS) was developed to provide a distributed name-to-address mapping service, but is now also used to share keying material for securing online transactions. Operational restrictions on the generalised functionality of technologies as originally designed have a negative impact on their viability as building blocks for future solutions.

And, finally, the more the Internet stays the same, the more it changes:

No permanent favourites

The Internet has no permanent favourites. In the 1990s, Netscape and Mosaic were among the most popular web browsers on the Internet. And before the Web itself there was Gopher. Before Facebook and Twitter, MySpace was the dominant social network. Today, more people access the Internet with a mobile device than from a desktop computer. Continued success depends on continued relevance and utility, not strictly some favoured status. Good ideas are overtaken by better ideas and this is part of the natural evolution of the Internet.

Abilities arising from the Internet

The invariants described above are what we believe to be the fundamental characteristics that make the Internet such a powerful and special medium for communication, sharing and innovation. The Internet Society believes that the Internet based on these invariants empowers users with certain abilities. These abilities stem from the invariants and underpin the social and economic value that the Internet provides to people. As we look to the future, these abilities must remain at the heart of the Internet experience for everyone, everywhere.

The ability to connect

The Internet was designed to ensure anywhere-to-anywhere connectivity. All Internet users, regardless of where they live, should have the ability to connect to any other point on the Internet, without technical or other impediments. This ability to connect people is essential to the Internet’s value as a platform for innovation, creativity, and economic opportunity.

The ability to speak

The Internet empowers users with the ability to speak globally and in many new forms. Its value as a medium for self-expression is dependent on the ability of its users to speak freely. Private, secure and, when appropriate, anonymous communications ensure that Internet users can express themselves in a safe and secure manner. All Internet users should have the means to communicate and collaborate without restriction.

The ability to innovate

The Internet provides the open connectivity fabric that underpins huge swathes of innovation in terms of both economic activity and social interaction. Combined with open data, widely-adopted mobile computing platforms, and widely-deployed wireless broadband networks, the Internet is fundamental to the ability of individuals and societies to devise new ways of working, playing, organising, and growing.

The ability to share

The Internet enables sharing, learning, and collaboration. The ability to share and openly discuss code online has given rise to the open development of key applications of the Internet, such as the DNS and the World Wide Web. Fundamental to this ability is the concept of fair use, and the freedom to develop and use open source software.

The ability to choose

The Internet empowers users with the ability to make choices from a global marketplace of ideas, goods and services. Although the Internet does not require such a marketplace, its existence, characterised by choice and transparency, allows users to remain in control of their Internet experience.

The ability to trust

Users must be able to trust the Internet and the communications, services, and applications it carries. As originally deployed, the Internet did not provide any intrinsic mechanisms to build or support trust in the network. Consequently, we have seen and will continue to see a huge amount of development effort directed toward retrofitting trust to the Internet at all layers.

The Internet in society

The Internet Invariants provide a guide to what really matters about the Internet in terms of its architecture and technological properties. The abilities highlight the different ways in which the Internet affects human societies and supports us in understanding why people care so much about this technological artefact that is much more than the sum of its parts. Both notions will help guide us as we consider the issues of consolidation in the Internet economy.