Fighting Grackles

The Cyber Tussles Between the Layers of the Internet

The Internet was created in simpler times. The various principles which formed it are under constant challenge. Over time the Internet has gone from a research curiosity to a mainstream utility.

The openness of cyberspace is heavily challenged by various competing interests. Read on about the struggle, various players, and what can be done.

Feature Image / License

Layers of the Internet

Vint Cerf wrote in the September edition of Communications of the ACM an article called “The Upper Layers of the Internet”. In it he talks about the various protocols of the Internet:

  • IP
  • UDP
  • TCP
  • SMTP
  • HTTP
  • HTML

The various stakeholders using the Internet enforce their own terms and conditions. For example: prohibiting violent content, must be older than 18 to enter, etc. He frames the struggle as a tussle in cyberspace.

The permissive openness of the lower layers of the internet is now plainly challenged by the policy choices made at the virtual political layer.

Where lines are drawn in permission space will profoundly affect the utility and ubiquity of the internet and the society in which it is embedded.

The tussle in cyberspace is far from over

— Vint Cerf

Tussles in Cyberspace

abstract 3 dimensional representation of cyberspace and the internet
Image / License
abstract three dimensional representation of cyberspace and the internet

There was a recent white paper written at MIT called “Tussle in Cyberspace: Defining Tomorrow’s Internet“. It is worth a read so please click on it. The authors describe the founding principles of the Internet along with the interactions of various stakeholders who have competing differences. This is what they refer to as the “Tussle in Cyberspace”.

Principles include:

  • Datagram packet
  • End to end arguments
  • Diverse technoogy
  • Global addressing / routing

Simpler Time and the Internet

The advent of the Internet was due in large part to the common goals and consistent visions of the various players. Since this no longer exists we have a different scene. The players have changed and it has created new power struggles.

The various players involved mirror society:

  • Users running apps over the internet
  • Commercial ISPs who sell internet service for a profit
  • Private sector network providers
  • Governments
  • IP holders
  • Content providers

Tussle Spaces

The authors describe several areas of contention. I will just focus on 2: economics and trust.

Economic Struggles

Image / License /

The Providers of the Internet are not interested in giving it away – they want profit. These ISPs are competitors who see their customers as a source of revenue. Often times this can cause problems due to conflicting agendas.

The level of sophistication has also increased. With value added pricing, organizations can start dividing consumers into classes based on their willingness to pay. An easy example are Airlines.

All the major airlines have broken down their seats into different tiers. Depending on how much the consumer wants a differentiated amenity will determine the price.

With ISPs it would be nice if users could choose their routing, i.e. control the path of packets. However the economics of the situation dictate this conflict will likely not be changed.

Trust Me

Trust me I'm an engineer

Many users do not trust each other. That makes sense when you are participating in a global community of anonymous or named people. The effects of this distrust are profound and irreversible.

Early at DARPA and a handful of universities there was a small homogeneous community of Internet users. Now nearly everyone has access to the Internet and a willingness to use it.

Firewalls have changed the free and open Internet into a minefield of forbidden networks. In and of itself that is not necessary bad; however, who gets to control the firewall policies? It makes good sense that a private company can control Internet access to their servers. But consider a government like China and you will see the disparity.

The formation of the World Wide Web started with good intentions too. Slowly the struggle from competing interests want a seat at the table. Organizations such as W3C were moderated better for conflicts of interest. Today Microsoft and all major tech companies have a say in the development of the World Wide Web. Is this good or bad? Hard to say – I remember the time before the commercialization of the WWW and yearn for that again.

When dealing with issues of trust it is paramount that each person knows who they are interacting with. The only exception I can think of is in the primitive days of the internet (think prior to 1990). Everyone was largely anonymous but still developed close online communities. As the number of participants increased to hundreds of millions or billions of users this dynamic falls apart. This is probably the main thing that Facebook got right – setting a standard where you post with your identity and not as an unknown person.

We have to know who we are talking to in order to gain trust. This is similar to the concept of branding in business. One of the biggest fears is that changes here may suppress the openness of the Internet.


What can be done to stem the tidal forces trying to influence the Internet? I think the concept of openness is beneficial. It doesn’t have to be based on a “free” model. After all – if it is “free” then you are the product! Think free as in speech and not free as in beer.

Who is the most dismayed with this? Older people like me who remember a time before caller ID, broadband, and the pervasive nature of our personal technology. The cypherpunks who inspired much of the early culture of the Internet are perhaps the most dismayed.

Their view of privacy was different than the younger generation of today. They valued privacy through technology – not through legislation. The laws of mathematics provide our ability to converse without prying eyes in our encryption protocols.

Technologists, such as the people reading this right now, are in a prime position to understand, influence, and shape the Internet. Those who understand or remember the early days need to stand up and represent their interests.

Thanks for reading!

If you liked this post then you might also like: My Project: Wired House for Ethernet Cat 6

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2 thoughts on “The Cyber Tussles Between the Layers of the Internet

    • Thanks Francesco – I’m not a big fan of what Facebook has become. It’s nice to have both known identities online when communicating AND the alternative to remain relatively anonymous.

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