It’s the World Wide Web's 30th birthday, and its parents are worried.

On Monday, founder Tim Berners-Lee told the BBC the web had been a “force for good” for the first half of its existence, but its impact on society now hung “in the balance”.

Yet the question of the internet’s future is inextricable from that of its ownership.

It’s easy to forget how material an undertaking the world wide web is, mobilising thick coils of wiring and data centres as big as villages.

Currently, about 1.2 million kilometres of cable line our ocean floors, funnelling information between continents at almost the speed of light.

Historically, state-owned or -subsidised telecommunications companies collaborated to install oceanic cables. The New York Times reports such projects can cost up to $350 million. Pooling resources helped internet providers provide unprecedented connectivity while remaining cost-effective.

 

Length of oceanic cables which Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft had respectively invested in by 2018. Source: BroadbandNow

   

Now, private content providers like Google and Microsoft lease or own nearly 55% of all underwater internet cables. They are also expanding their cable infrastructure to link Virginia with Bilbao, or Japan with Guam.

As the physical equipment enabling the internet becomes proprietary, can this create parallel internets—which operate at different speeds and host different content?

Would this contradict the inclusive, participatory internet experience its creators intended? Or does it indicate successful competition within a thriving market?

   

Projected usage of international bandwidth until 2024, in units of one thousand Terabytes per second. Note: Google & Facebook fall into the 'content providers' category. Source: TeleGeography

   
   
Credit for this article's header image goes to Getty.