Designed in the late 1960s, the internet enables individuals to connect with one another directly. In a single generation, the confluence of innovations in information science, telecommunications and audiovisual techniques has transformed social life worldwide. A global network of physical infrastructure enables an ever-increasing quantity of information to be circulated and stored. But “digital divides” prevent very many individuals from gaining access to it.

The internet was first mooted in the late 1960s by researchers and the military in the west and launched in 1983. It connects individuals directly using a network of distant computers. Since the early 1990s, investment in research and development has led to the arrival on the market of the web, browsers, search engines, MP3 recording, blogs, online shopping platforms, Wi-Fi, messaging services, social networks, smartphones, high-speed connections and the interactive, participative web 2.0.

Chronology of the Internet, 1957-2017

Sources: INA global, Le Réseau internet depuis 1957, ; International Telecommunications Union,

Comment: This chronology of key moments in the development of the Internet since the late 1950s shows the impact of the United States (in public research and then in the emergence of dominant private actors), the acceleration of technologies and products offered for sale, and the very rapid growth in the number of Internet users within a twenty-year period.

The internet as a global space

In the space of a generation, these innovations in computing, telecommunications and audiovisual media have converged, revolutionizing social life, breaking the age-old links between writing and print, geographical proximity and community, and cumulative learning and reading, to immerse individuals in an uninterrupted flow of information. The information society that has emerged from this revolution is characterized by ubiquity, immediacy, extreme individualization, and the exchange and exploitation of data. It is central to the paradox of the contemporary international order, where power relations between nation states and super-powerful transnational actors play out in a single, deregulated, hyper- networkedspace. The production, storage, exchange, distribution, processing and exploitation of growing quantities of information have become the dominant social and economic activities.

The interoperability of this decentralized structure relies on the global interlinking of unevenly developed elements of physical infrastructure (satellites, underground and maritime cables and optic fibers, routers and root servers), between which information stored in giant data centers can circulate.

Location of domain name root servers, 2018 

Sources: ; International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 

Comment: Domain name root servers (identified by letters) are intermediaries between a computer and another server that match domain names to IP addresses. They form a dense and hierarchical global network with 13 root servers (of which 10 are in the United States) and their numerous instances (or copies) spread around the world. The map shows a high concentration in Europe and North America. After that come emerging countries and the Middle East, although the correlation between the number of servers and the share of Internet users is not verified everywhere.

Location of data centers, January 2018 

Sources: ; International Telecommunications Union (ITU),

Comment: The location of data centers – places for storing information belonging to companies, administrations, and private individuals – is strictly limited, particularly by the need for security and energy availability. As well as a very considerable North/South imbalance and a high concentration in the United States and Europe, the map shows that their location only partly overlaps with the share of Internet users, except in Africa where, as yet, there is little integration.

The growth in requests for domain addresses and names has led to changes in the global protocols for IP addresses. These operations are regulated by ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), a Californian non-profit organization recently released from its contract with the United States Department of Commerce. The volume of data generated at the global level is set to multiply by four by 2020 to reach 600 zettabytes. Although most of this data is not stored or passed on, storage capacity is set to increase considerably, particularly since big data analysis is central to both trade and science.

Submarine cables, 1989-2020 

Source: TeleGeography, www.

Comment: This map of the grid mesh (both current and planned) of submarine cable networks through which most of the world’s telecommunications pass shows both the unequal density in terms of the maritime areas and continents connected, a densification of the oldest routes (North Transatlantic and Transpacific), and also the development of connections between countries of the South and the global network (South Atlantic, Mediterranean, Africa).

Sustained massive investment in infrastructure for the transit, storage and security of data is vital to maintain the frenetic growth of a system on which every society in the world depends and where almost all the actors are private.

Digital divides

The integration into the information world of individuals who may be more or less combined into

communities sharing values or professional, entertainment or commercial interests is not a universal phenomenon, and nor does it guarantee social integration. Many people are excluded from either access or use, despite developments in the countries of the South, the terrain of choice for telecommunications companies. The International Telecommunication Union advocates reducing the digital divide in the name of the basic right to communicate. The term digital divide covers very different situations and is based on a highly technical vision. Many have identified the paradoxical role of information and communications technology (ITC) as a source of both growth and many forms of inequality. Although in 2016, 95 % of the world’s population lived in a zone covered by a mobile network (84 % broadband), for those living in rural areas the proportion falls to 67 % and this unequal access to infrastructure (connectivity and electricity) combines with issues of reliability, speed, connection costs for individuals, generation (digital natives and digital immigrants), gender, and education (ability to learn to use the technology and make social use of it).

Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Development Index, 2017 

Source: International Telecommunications Union (ITU),

Comment: To measure the spread of the information society worldwide, the International Telecommunication Union publishes an annual report on ICT. The 11 indicators concern access (telephone, bandwidth, computers and internet), their use, and the skills required (levels of literacy and education). The map shows that there are still considerable gaps between countries despite rapid development, especially in Africa.

A total 53 % of the world’s population did not use the internet in 2016 (22 % of Europeans, 75 % of Africans). These people excluded from the global digital world are heavily penalized in areas ranging from employability to citizenship. More generally, the circulation of texts and images is increasing to the detriment of content quality, which exposes the most vulnerable individuals to failure, disinformation and even manipulation by identity entrepreneurs. However, new entrants are bringing innovations, for example in Africa, where cell phones have an increasing role in economic and social development (devices with multiple SIM cards, low-cost battery charging, phone-based payments, money transfers and medical diagnoses, distance learning and the participatory mapping of social spaces and resources).

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