To the user, the internet is a product that you buy. You pay a bill, it comes out of a cable into your router, and onto your computer. It's logical to see it as something that "comes from somewhere". However, that's not really what's happening. ISPs aren't supplying internet, they are the internet. ISPs rely on one another in order to funnel information across the web, and they're selling the capability to connect to the networks they uphold. ISPs form what is known as the backbone of the internet, the basic connections needed in order for the network to stay running.
This isn't a huge misunderstanding, but it has some consequences. When people see the internet like something that comes out of a tap, they're willing to put up with a lot more garbage from ISPs and regulatory agencies. If you see yourself consuming the internet like you consume electricity or water, policies like fast lanes and data caps don't seem so bad. However, if most consumers are fine with data capped plans, it stops making sense for ISPs to offer non-capped plans at reasonable prices, because they're generally less profitable.
So ISPs control who can and cannot connect to the internet. But who controls the ISPs? Who controls the content that appears online? Again, there's no one catch-all governing body for the web, but major nations have served consequences to citizens over their use of the internet.
The most the US government controls the web is regulating ISPs through the FCC, sort of. It deals with transmission paths, both wired and unwired, and net neutrality. Net Neutrality is the concept that ISPs should provide the whole internet when purchasing their services, instead of subscription-based models like what we have for TV channels. Artificial creations for money is not a new internet concept - the internet is an unending resource (as long as there's electricity) and things like data caps and speed throttling are made-up concepts to give you less for more money. For some reason, the FCC is highly resistant to regulation, choosing to opt out of things that may even be an obligation for them just because the internet is involved(cough, cause the current ISPs give them a lot of money, cough).
There's been little interference between governments and ISPs, which allows ISPs to run things as they please. And truly, ISPs answer to who runs the digital markets - some would call them the Frightful Five. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Alphabet (Google), and Microsoft are the titans of the internet, developing monopolies and centralizing the web at an alarming pace.
UPDATE: I was mistaken, but not in the way I thought. Google and Apple have been exposed in handing over push notifications and their metadata to both foreign governments and the US Government, but were under a gag order from the US, where they weren't allowed to share this seizure of information (without a warrant, mind you) with their customers through their TOS. This story broke as of yesterday, so I will update this section as I learn more.
A push notification is an alert (typically a pop-up or other message) generated by an application, notifying the user of a new message, update, social media post, etc. Metadata means "data about data" and defined as the data providing information about one or more aspects of the data; it is used to summarize basic information about data that can make tracking and working with specific data easier. When a push notification is supposed to be sent to you, it goes from an app's server to Google or Apple's server (through Android or iPhone), to your phone. Before the notification ever even reaches you, they collect the push notification and metadata. Push notification settings need to be set at an app level as well as an OS level to stop this, meaning that if your OS has notifications off, an app could still be sending data to Google and Apple, but it never reaches your phone. With this being known now, I wouldn't be surprised if ISPs were also supplying these types of data groups around as well.
An example of the Five's presence is most ISPs have a Google Global Cache Node within their servers. This node helps lessen the time it takes for Google to send you information by storing files, scripts, images, and more within the cache (temporary storage on a server or device), which is why you can get millions or billions of results in under a few seconds. This also, however, means Google is directly connected to the Internet Backbone. In fact, a lot of for-profit business is rooted within the center of how the web runs.
The individual core networks are privately owned by Tier 1 ISPs, giant carriers whose networks are tied together. These providers include AT&T, CenturyLink, Cogent Communications, Deutsche Telekom, Global Telecom and Technology (GTT), NTT Communications, Sprint, Tata Communications, Telecom Italia Sparkle, Telia Carrier, and Verizon. The main reason why this is the case is the US government - no surprise there - and its unending distaste of budgeting.
Simply put, American leaders just don't want to pay internet companies to maintain their services and provide free internet for all, the same ways they just don't want to pay to end hunger in America or provide affordable housing in any way, because the nation's money mostly gets spent on war and military. In 2022 alone, the US spent 1.537 trillion dollars on the military, which was DOUBLE the budget allotment decided at the beginning of the year and almost double the spending on affordable housing, transportation, education, healthcare, and national parks (the Nondefense Budget) COMBINED.
I don't want to jump on a political rant, but this knowledge is increasingly necessary as time moves forward.
While no one entity controls the internet, governments can control what their people see, like how Russian authorities have blocked/removed ~138,000 websites since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Tech giants and ISPs can block sites from showing up in search results or make certain information increasingly difficult to find. Videos are becoming more and more restrictive based on what country you live in - YouTube videos are geo-restricted due to licensing agreements and copyright laws that content creators and distributors have to abide by. Even as I type this, the US is blocking information about the ethnic cleansing in Gaza. These blockages are vital to understand, because they are directly affecting the general public and our futures. With the introduction of AI, it is now more important than ever to recognize propaganda, where to get uncensored information, and how to formulate your own opinions on matters involving war, money, and resources.
There's no easy solution. But we can start by arming ourselves with knowledge. Here's a few resources on how to recognize propaganda:
Knowing is half the battle. There's a reason why engineers and technology degrees should have humanities and ethics factored into their learning regime - because if they don't, we get things like AI Celebrity Endorsements for snake-oil products. The FTC released a report about how people are using AI to commit fraud, create fake ads, steal information, and more just a few months ago, and it's only gotten worse with global powers ignoring the issue.
The concept behind engineering ethics is that you need to be designing for humans, meaning you both need to keep humans safe from the pitfalls of your project and from other humans. When making a project, you must assume that the worst kind of person will be using your tools - someone with nefarious or even hurtful intent - and the most vulnerable kind of person - someone who knows nothing about safety habits. If you don't design with this spectrum in mind, we get things like political deception, the complete dissolve of trust in digital information, and many, many vulnerable individuals losing their money, their personal information, or worse, their life.
So no one controls the internet... And yet global entities have say in how it's run, what you see, how ads are distributed, how much information they can collect on you, what you're allowed to post and view, and more. It's easy to fall into a false sense of security on the web - but the internet is a political, economic, and emotional tool. When ethics fall to the wayside, we're immediately entered into something extremely dangerous for us all. These topics and themes are important to remember when engaging with the internet at large, and should be our guiding light when indulging in online information. Question what you see, don't be afraid to search deeper, and tread carefully.