• What is the internet?

  • How can we connect to the internet?

  • What is the role of internet service providers?


This story demonstrates that those parts of internet infrastructure run by internet service providers (ISPs) are crucial to providing internet connectivity to the larger population.

The internet is made of multiple layers, each of which serves specific functions.

The content layer depicts what users share online, that is videos, blogposts, pictures, etc. 

The application layer helps users send and receive information via readable interfaces, including web-based platforms, email, and instant messaging. Internet service applications, like Google or Facebook, help you use and navigate the internet; otherwise, everything would be in coding language! 

The logical layer includes all standard protocols supporting the connections between devices and the applications running on them. Most institutions that host the technical and logical standards by which the internet works are based in the USA. 

Most importantly, the infrastructural layer is about the physical infrastructure—that is the cables, wires, phones, computers, and routers—needed to establish and maintain connection. 

Interconnected across the globe via copper cables, fiber optic cables, or radio waves, the small local networks of computers on which the internet relies belong to various ISPs that enable ‘last-mile’-connections to end-users. With ISPs there exists an industry-wide capacity to grant and restrict access to manifold internet-based services on which an increasingly digitalized economy and society relies.


ARTICLE 19 & Catnip. 2021. How the Internet Really Works: An Illustrated Guide to Protocols, Privacy, Censorship, and Governance. No Starch Press.

A playful introduction to the internet’s physical infrastructure. Using humorous illustrations, it explains how the internet is networked and what the internet’s infrastructure looks lik.

DENARDIS, L. 2014. The Global War for Internet Governance. Yale University Press.

An introduction to the power structures inherent in the architecture of internet governance. It reveals how the control over local internet infrastructure puts ISPs in a powerful decision to provide, manipulate, or cut internet access.

FLYVERBOM, M., DEIBERT, R. & MATTEN, D. 2019. The Governance of Digital Technology, Big Data, and the Internet: New Roles and Responsibilities for Business. Business & Society 58(1): 3-19.

This special issue explores the so-called “Internet-industrial complex”—the intersections between business, states, and other actors in the shaping, development, and governance of the internet. 
FREYBURG, T., GARBE, L. & WAVRE, V. 2021. The Political Power of Internet Business: A Comprehensive Dataset of Telecommunications Ownership and Control (TOSCO). Manuscript. University of St.Gallen.

An original discussion of the role of ISP ownership for the political and economic effects of internet penetration. Mapping the dynamic telecommunications landscape in Africa since 2000, it analyses different ownership types, notably the state, private investors, and family/individuals, and their role in corporate decisions on government-requested shutdowns, among others.

GOLDSMITH, J. & WU, T. 2006. Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World. Oxford University Press.

A provocative discussion of the challenges to the internet as a liberation technology. Building on a series of practical examples, it shows how governments seek to assert their power to direct and control the use and expansion of the internet.


Véronique Wavre
Lisa Garbe @LaserGabi
Tina Freyburg @TFreyburg

University of St.Gallen IPW-SEPS
Müller-Friedbergstrasse 8
CH - 9000 St.Gallen

Pia Valaer

Flüelastrasse 16
CH - 8048 Zürich

To request additional educational material (e.g. posters, postcards, printed version), please contact Tina Freyburg:

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License
ISBN 978-3-9525450-1-0