Surveillance, Power, and the Topology of the Internet

The Internet as a Space:

The field of network theory has taken a strong interest in mapping and describing the topology of the Internet. By describing the Internet as a network of nodes representing web addresses connected by edges representing links, network theorists can develop models of how the internet is structured. Such analyses reveal that the internet is arranged hierarchically: there are a vast number of nodes that are connected to very few other nodes, but there are also a much smaller number of nodes that are each closely connected to a huge number of other addresses. Because of these highly “central” nodes, the average distance between any two web addresses on the Internet is remarkably short – in the vicinity of 20 links (Albert et al.). One can easily reach any part of the Internet by starting at a highly central node, which will be connected in relatively few steps to the target destination. These central nodes often belong to search engines and other sites that serve as gateways to a large amount of content.

Image: Carmi et al.
Image: Calvert et al.

To efficiently reach a desired web address, an Internet user must make use of these highly central nodes – otherwise navigating the vast network of links would be intractable. The topology of the Internet, then, is arranged so that it forces users to pass through web addresses belonging to certain entities. This enables those entities to surveil users that pass through nodes they control – collecting data on consumption of media and goods and attempting to profile and categorize users.

The bottleneck becomes even more severe when one considers not only the sites the user interacts with directly but also any web address through which their personal information passes. Google and Facebook’s login services, for example, are used by other sites to authenticate users. Even on sites Google and Facebook do not directly control, users report their presence to Google or Facebook when they log in and thereby allow their behavior on the site to be surveilled.

Surveillance by corporations for commercial purposes in turn facilitates government surveillance. As part of the surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden, the NSA made use of vast amounts of data taken from infiltrated Google and Yahoo data centers, among others, to indiscriminately spy on Internet users.

The Topology of the Internet Exerts Power:

If we view the internet and cyberspace as a physical space, then we can see the creation of the internet as an exercise in worldmaking. Our experience on the internet is often described as another life, or as virtual world, and the spatial design or network patterns on the internet is what we encounter when we log into cyberspace. Additionally, the more people use specific sites, the more intrinsic they become to an internet experience, creating the bottleneck effect explained earlier and also reaffirming the position of certain sites as centers of this internet space, or centers of our online world. The above process is an example of collective worldmaking, in which both internet creators and users participate, but nevertheless a distinct online world is made. The space of the internet forces you to reproduce the power structure–by engaging with it.

In the Panopticon or any other space of power exertion, it doesn’t matter which individual is at the center/doing the surveillance; it’s the arrangement of parts, the structure of the system, that produces the power. That power is merely taken up and exercised by the individual occupying the seat in the tower for a specific moment. In much the same way, it is the structure of the internet, with its hierarchical arrangement into centralized nodes, that gives major gateways power over individual users’ experience.

Yet the functioning of the internet depends on its arrangement into nodes, and it would be almost impossible to navigate without the hierarchical structure and giant systematizers, currently Google and Facebook, by which internet users are dominated and surveilled. And while surveillance is not critical to the internet’s organization in the same way that centralized nodes are, it allows companies to tailor content to the specific interests of the user, from political content to clothing advertisements. By profiling users, companies are able to create categories of people that predict shopping and reading trends with high accuracy. As companies market their products based on these data-generated archetypes, individuals’ tastes, ideas, and ostensibly unique personalities are funneled into category-determined creations. The attempt to discover the individual’s preferences creates those preferences. This has given rise, recently, to critiques of political “echo chambers,” on Facebook for example, where users are only exposed to content that reinforces their preconceptions.

Image: Lumeta
Image: Caida

Discipline’s characteristic “discretion, its low exteriorization, its relative invisibility, the little resistance it arouses” are all attributes of internet’s power exertion (Foucault, 218). In the same way as spaces of discipline, the internet’s power is diffuse, latent, apparently benign.

Foucault’s argument is essentially that physical space can exert power, or reinforce existing power dynamics. To put this argument into the context of our class themes, physical space can be determining. In essence, by creating and using the internet, we make ourselves an online world. As power congeals in certain areas of that space (such as a search engine like Google), or as the space of the internet continues to reinforce existing power structures (such as the government), our experiences in this online world are determined.

As described, search engines like Google occupy a significant amount of space on the internet. As sites like google are used more and more, the more central their space becomes, until almost every path of internet usage involves going through Google. To make your search through Google means that Google determines the results you have access to, and the more you use Google, the more data Google collects about your internet usage, and the more the Google algorithm can tailor your results. So the more you reaffirm the structure of the internet, the more in which the internet can determine your experience there. The ads you see, the suggested pages or “friends” that pop up, the search results at the top of your screen are all determined by the centralized spaces that you move through on the internet.
However, this process of moving through centralized space does not just determine your internet habits and existence. When a significant portion of your time is spent looking at this determined internet reality, it begins to determine who you are as an individual. Your habits, your purchases, your interests, your political ideology, your morals––all of these categories can be determined by your online experience, and all of these categories play important roles in determining who you are (and how the world perceives you) as an individual. Likewise, as the government continues to use internet surveillance to think about national security, your political status in the eyes of government power has also been determined by your experience in the online world.

Works Cited:

Albert, Reka, Hawoong Jeong, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi. “Internet: Diameter of the World-Wide Web.” Nature 401 (1999).

Calvert, Kenneth, Matthew Doar, Ellen Zegura. “Modeling Internet Topology.” IEEE Communications Magazine 1997.

Carmi, Shai, Shlomo Havlin, Scott Kirkpatcrick, Yuval Shavitt, Eran Shir. “A model of Internet topology using k-shell decomposition.” PNAS 104 (2007).


2 thoughts on “Surveillance, Power, and the Topology of the Internet

  1. This article is very intense and shocking. It is as if we are electing to position ourselves inside a virtual panopticon, where we are observed and disciplined accordingly. My first thought is to reject this theory: how can a panopticon work if the residents don’t acknowledge that they are being observed? For example, the surveillance of a sixth grader on facebook who is not aware of the surveillance, has a very different effect on the persons life than the surveillance of a fully-aware adult. Yet, the article go on to reject my doubts by explaining how the internet surveillance is world-making in that it determines who we are as a person (what we buy, like, and do) and even may determine our political status. I suppose that if someone is physically inside a panopticon, but they do not recognize it, that does not change their position in the world of power. My next thought is about how this affects the power-relations in the world even outside of facebook users. Although some individuals may choose not to place themselves inside this virtual panopticon, the normalization of the intense surveillance by certain companies and by the government has extended past the facebook users. Each time a phone call is placed, the government records who is calling who. The normalization of the intense power structure for a large portion of society through the internet, has now gone on to heighten this power structure for all citizens.


    1. I think you bring up a really good question here: would anything change if people/users were aware of the level of surveillance they were under? After writing this post, I started to question what Foucault might advise me to do next now that I’ve learned more about the Panopticon of the Internet. Should I change my Internet habits? Or is there a necessity to this level of surveillance?


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