Aug 7 2012

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum

David Auerbach

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The Internet, originally known as ARPAnet, was first constructed for specialized use by educational and government professionals, but when the idea took off, the small infrastructure could not handle the sudden explosion of users. So in the 1990s, private companies built huge amounts of their own Internet infrastructure, mostly across a few locations in the United States and Europe. Wired journalist Andrew Blum's first book, Tubes, is an entertaining travelogue that takes him through these sites—from Silicon Valley conference rooms to Oregon datacenter warehouses to ships laying underseas cables—in search of the physical places that create the virtual space we all inhabit. While the Internet may seem intangible and ubiquitous, Tubes attempts to show how centralized its physical structures really are.

In one section, entrepreneur Jay Adelson takes Blum through a trip of Virginia datacenter Equinix Ashburn. Blum writes, "I took a moment to admire the walls, hung with illuminated wavy blue glass panels made by an artist in Australia. All the early Equinix data centers have the same ones. Then, after that long, dramatic pause, the airlock doors opened with a hearty click and a whoosh, and we were released into the inner lobby. It too was cyberrific." Blum concludes: "And truly and fairly—even by rational adult standards—Equinix Ashburn was the Internet to a far greater degree than most anyplace else on earth could claim."

Blum's awe at the tangibility of the internet is misplaced, however, not just because Equinix Ashburn houses only a tiny fraction of the Internet, but also because the Internet is defined by its lack of reliance on any single piece of physical infrastructure.

Throughout, Blum's attempts to expose the inner workings of the Internet lead him astray. The simplest problems are factual. Blum repeats Al Gore's "purported claim of having 'invented the Internet'"—a phrase Gore never actually used. Blum claims that "2 percent of the world's electricity usage can now be traced to data centers, and that usage is growing at a rate of 12 percent a year"; it's a disturbing statistic, except that the numbers are wrong. The 2 percent figure is almost double the real amount, and the rate of growth has been declining, not remaining fixed at 12 percent.

The book's errors extend into technical matters. Blum says, "every IP address is by definition public knowledge; to be on the Internet is to want to be found." But an IP address does not enable you to be found. Any person can cover their Internet tracks to a greater or lesser extent, which is part of the reason why piracy cases are so difficult to prove, and why so many hackers go uncaught. A list of IP addresses is nothing more than a list of phone numbers without names. In another instance, while analyzing his personal Internet data footprint, Blum includes streamed movies from Netflix, which do not take up any per-user space, and "a couple hundred blog posts," which do not even make up the little toe of his footprint.

More importantly, from a technical perspective, Blum places emphasis and concern in the wrong places, playing up minor issues while ignoring major ones. He worries about a terrorist attack on a datacenter, which is unlikely to impair the whole internet in any serious way, but makes no mention of how the Domain Name Service (DNS) can be used to make sites like Wikileaks vanish instantly from the internet. He ignores the deal Google struck with Verizon to oppose Network Neutrality, in which both companies supported allowing wireless carriers to privilege traffic—thereby impairing access to some sites and squashing competition. He also ignores Facebook's eroding privacy policies, their refusal to delete the data of users who close their accounts, their automatic replacement of users' email addresses with facebook.com addresses, and the sketchy IPO dealings that are now under SEC investigation. (NB: I previously worked for Microsoft and Google.)

Guiding Blum's approach is his mistaken belief in the "fundamental openness" of the Internet. By insisting that the Internet is inherently open and free, Blum neglects just how corporatized and oligarchic it is threatening to become. The Internet is quite anomalous in that it was built as a government project before being released as a public resource. Private wireless networks, owned by a handful of telecom companies, are now attempting to monopolize access to the internet and thereby limit consumer choice. Streamlined user accounts, be they on Facebook or Google, collect and expose people's data in a way that IP addresses never could. This is how the internet is really becoming centralized.

Blum's myopic vision of the internet stems from his prioritizing personal experience over factual inquiry. The result is misinformation. He concludes, "The Internet's physical infrastructure has many centers, but from a certain vantage point there is really only one: You. Me." I disagree. If we are truly to understand how things fit together—the personal and the political, the virtual and the physical—we must start, like Copernicus, by removing ourselves from the center of the universe.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer living in New York. He writes at http://www.waggish.org.

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