The dominance of the content distribution network, and what it means



Geoff Huston, chief scientist for APNIC, spoke to the Internet Society of Canada yesterday. His speech is vitally important for understanding the Internet of today. The picture is dark. You ought to know about it.


Houston’s thesis is that the Internet has come to be dominated by very few content distribution networks (CDNs) – Amazon, Cloudflare, Google, Facebook, Alibaba, Akamai and Microsoft are the principal ones. They have moved their data centres as close to population centres as they can, in every part of the world. Thus content is no longer drawn from the United States to Australia, as it used to be, for example, over common carrier networks. Rather it is stowed in digital fortresses in Australia, so that the Australian customer receives his content as fast as possible. Traffic largely bypasses international carriers. The content reaches the end point over entirely private networks. To be specific, none of the major Content Delivery Networks is a common carrier, or ever has had public legal duties of fairness and non discrimination.  By the same token, and to an increasing extent, submarine cables are no longer being built by carriers, but by the owners of content delivery networks. The result is that the content reaches the customer over entirely private systems of delivery.

The consequences are large, says Huston.

  • the entire Internet is being repurposed
  • the global addressing system (IP addresses, domain names) is much less relevant, and the reasons for supporting it diminish
  • edge computers are now acting as televisions 
  • the internal parts of the network are now being privatized and removed from public regulatory oversight
  • The regulated world of telecommunications carriers shrinks to the distance between the CDN content bunkers and the consumer end points.

The scale and seriousness of digital attacks has also driven the content into virtual fortresses. [I have always wondered in whose interest denial of services attacks are, who launches them, who benefits from them.] 

As Huston observes:

At some point in the past decade or so the dominant position across the entire Internet has been occupied by a very small number of players who are moving far faster than the regulatory measures that were intended to curb the worst excesses of market dominance by a small clique of actors….

For me, the essential topic of this conversation is how we can strike a sustainable balance between an energetic private sector that has rapidly amassed overarching control of the digital service and content space, and the needs of the larger society in which we all would like some equity of opportunity to thrive and benefit from the outcomes of this new digital age.


 Geoff speaks of our new condition as “surveillance capitalism” and a “global market of one”. You are the product, and you have at this time no rights in personal information. You gave them away in order to participate in the digital economy.

As I pointed out at the end of Geoff Huston’s presentation, a slave is defined as a person who has no property rights in his own labour. A slave’s labour is owned by someone else. He works for room and board, but the surplus is owned by the master. So what is the term for a person who has no property rights in information about themselves?

A helot? A serf? You? Me?

Rights in information about ourselves will be the issue of our time, if I am not mistaken.

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