Explaining The Internet – Part 1

With all the misunderstanding and confusion regarding online privacy these days, whether it be the use of data to guide the targeting of ad campaigns, or the intrusion of the state into personal affairs, I thought that it was high time for someone to provide a bit of an explanation. In this explanation, which I will begin shortly, I aim to make this seemingly complex topic understandable to those, unlike me, who have lived more years without the Internet than with it. To do this, I will use analogies that relate to things that were commonplace and ‘normal’ before the Internet came and changed the world. In the similarities and differences that come out of this process, I hope you’ll find something that helps you figure this out.

First, to understand online privacy, you need to know how the Internet works. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure it makes sense to you.

Ok, so explain the Internet, Mr. Smarty-Pants

A good way to describe the Internet is that each website on the Internet is like a mail-order catalogue. Each page on a website can be thought of as an item in a mail-order business’ catalogue. To order an item, you have to provide information to the business that put out the catalogue that includes: a. who you are (your name), b. what you want (the item in the catalogue), c. where you want it delivered (your home or business address, or perhaps a post office box). Once the business has this information, it can then check to make sure your address makes sense and actually exists, process the order, and send you the item you’ve requested. To view a website, your computer has to provide information to the server that hosts the website (the section of the catalogue) that includes: a. who you are (your computer’s ‘Media Access Control’/MAC address) what you want (the address of the web page, or ‘Uniform Resource Locator’/URL on the website you want to access), b. where you want it delivered (the ‘Internet Protocol’/IP address of your Internet connection). Then, now that the web server has this information sends the web page you requested to your Internet connection’s IP address, which then sends it to your computer so you can view it. This is how the Internet works – just like a bunch of mail-order businesses.

One of the most essential and basic parts of the Internet is the ‘search engine’, or a website that collects information on as many of the websites on the Internet as it can find, organizes it into a giant catalogue, then allows visitors to search this catalog of websites for one that might match their current needs. Google and Yahoo! are examples of search engines. If we recall the mail-order catalogue analogy, you could consider a search engine a catalogue of catalogues. Google and Yahoo! can be thought of as a couple of rivals who are in a race to scour the classified ads sections of the world’s newspapers and magazines, and provide the best information on what catalogues are available to the public, what companies provide those catalogues, and what those companies sell in those catalogues. In Internet terms, Google and Yahoo! search the Internet for websites, and try to figure out what websites are out there and are available to the public, who those websites belong to, and what kind of content those websites are offering.

But what about e-mail?

Well, in the pen-and-paper world, to send someone a message, you’d scribble on a piece of paper, put it on an envelope, put the address of whomever you’re mailing it to on it along with your return address, then put it in the mailbox. Every day, a government employee picks up the contents of every mailbox along a pre-determined route at roughly the same time every day, and takes all the mail to a central regional distribution warehouse, where it is sorted by whichever region the destination on each envelope is in. Then each region’s batch of mail is sent to that region’s own distribution warehouse, where it is sorted by the various routes of the mail carriers in that region. Each mail carrier is given a bag full of envelopes that are to be dropped off along their route, and eventually your envelope gets to the destination.

On the Internet, it’s a bit different, to send someone a message, you log into your e-mail client (Gmail, Live.com, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc.), select the main text box and type out your message, put the address of the intended recipient into the “To:” box, then click ‘Send’. When you click ‘Send’, your message goes into a long line of messages that the e-mail server will look at one by one. For each message, the e-mail server figures out from the domain name portion of the e-mail address (everything after the ‘@’ symbol – think of this as the name of the city) what IP address to send the message to (think of this as the postal code), and which e-mail account to put it into (the street address).

Another major difference between regular mail and e-mail, one that will become important as we go on, is that most countries have a government-owned and government-operated organization that picks up and delivers paper mail, but no such organization exists for e-mail (at least for general public use). Government organizations that carry mail (and their employees) are forbidden to look at the contents of the mail envelopes that they deliver, at least not for a very good reason that is approved by a judge. Even private couriers like FedEx, DHL, or UPS have to abide by those rules in order for the government to let them deliver mail. At least that’s how the postal service is supposed to work where I’m from. For e-mail, there is no government organization, and no rules for private organizations. Most private e-mail providers only store your e-mail messages so that you can look at them later if you want to – otherwise they don’t use them or look at them. Of course, since this information resides on the server of your e-mail provider, the potential is there for them to look at it. There’s also the potential for a government to get a court order that forces your e-mail provider to give it all of your e-mail messages, sent or received, for a given time period. It could also be intercepted between you and your recipient before it even gets to a server. Regular mail, on the other hand, doesn’t get copied as it passes through the central distribution warehouse – the only copy of the mailed message exists in your possession or the possession of your recipient.

But isn’t there more to it?

Oh yes. We haven’t even gotten started on things like online ads that follow you around the Internet, how things like computer viruses do their dirty work, or what “hackers” (the bad kind) do or how. I think this is enough for one blog post, however, and I’ll start writing more another time.