Why the Internet Didn’t Melt Down

This article is part of the On Tech newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it on weekdays. It shows that technologists learned from past mistakes when the internet did break and built a more adaptable system over decades. We’re more than a year into Zoom work calls, Netflix marathons, and most of us being online more for everything. And the internet has not melted into goo, as some experts feared at the onset of the pandemic. Households, organizations, and individual websites have had connection problems, but the basic plumbing of the internet has mostly been held together.

As the United States starts to open back up, I wanted to take a moment to assess what has gone right and appreciate the people and technologies that made our digital life sustainable. I called Justine Sherry, an assistant professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, to ask her why there haven’t been catastrophic internet failures despite wild spikes in online traffic during the pandemic. Last year, even Mark Zuckerberg was worried that his company might not keep up with all the people hopping on Facebook’s apps. Nerds, I salute you.

Dr. Sherry gave me two explanations. First, she said, the internet’s most significant vulnerability — interconnectedness — is also its greatest strength. And second, digital services have been cleverly designed for weird and imperfect conditions. “The underlying infrastructure that makes everything work is constantly adapting to failures, and it’s doing a pretty good job,” Dr. Sherry told me. Her first point is mainly about the prevalence of cloud computing. The technology, popularized in part by Amazon, essentially lets any website or app pay someone else to handle all or aspects of its digital operations instead of doing it alone.


There are downsides to this approach. When one widely used cloud computing company has a problem — and it happens pretty regularly — it can crash banks’ websites, cripple supermarket checkouts, disable email and stop people from accessing news outlets online, including The New York Times. The root cause of this fragility of our internet plumbing is also a strength. Because so much of the world’s digital services are handled by substantial computer systems like Amazon’s and Google’s, many digital services can respond to spikes in demand and more easily route around problems.

Dr. Sherry also talked me through a couple of other internet design technologies essential to handle significant increases in web traffic. She told me about a technology pioneer, Van Jacobson, who invented software that slows down internet data when online networks are clogged automatically. ‘Dr. Sherry said that his invention was a response tothe unusable internet in the mid-1980s when networks used mainly by universities kept breaking when too many people were online. She compared it to the freeway metering systems that limit the number of cars entering on-ramps during rush hour so that roads don’t become completely gridlocked.

Congestion control algorithms are now widely used. And web video companies have designed software on a similar premise to downgrade internet video quality if internet networks are clogged automatically. Those techniques, Dr. Sherry said, are adaptations based on the principle that the internet is never going to be perfect, and anything we access online must be able to function under less-than-ideal conditions. “The broad theme of all this is agility and adaptability,” she said.

Yes, online services in many countries did bog down when the pandemic hit last year. Internet service providers and website operators scrambled to add more computers and capacity to unclog networks. Our home networks and internet connections running into our homes are the most common points of failure. But again, the architecture of the overall internet system is relatively healthy. I asked Dr. Sherry if we should notice what works about the internet. Should we thank Van Jacobson when Netflix streams pretty well while riding in a moving car? She said that not noticingindicatesf a system working as intended. “I don’t know much about how my car works,” Dr. Sherry said. “I trust it.”

Before we go …

  • Computers have the same flaws as humans: People train the machines, and therefore our biases can creep into artificial intelligence systems. My colleague Cade Metz writes about people and organizations trying to identify and remove bias from artificial intelligence software before it’s widely used for high-stakes decisions like who should receive housing, health care, and credit.
  • More evidence of the internet’s age verification problem: U.S. law effectively requires websites and apps to get parental permission before children under 13 use online services, but enforcing the rules is difficult. My colleagues last year wrote about the large percentage of TikTok users that are most likely underage. One example: TikTok said it removed more than seven million accounts in early 2021 because the company believed they belonged to children under 13, Axios reports.
  • A phone company doing something clever?!?! The Verge reported that  T-Mobile lets people test drive its mobile phone service without signing ud. People with newer iPhones can download an app and try the T-Mobile network side-by-side with their existing phone carrier for 30 days.

Hugs to this

Here is Sivuqa,q the walrus clapping, loud enough to be heard on the other side of his tank’s four-inch-thick glass walls. My colleague Sabrina Imbler explained how and why Sivuqaq claps. We want to hear from you. Please tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at [email protected]. If you don’t already get this newsletter in your inbox, please sign up here. You can also read past On Tech columns.

Tyson Houlding
I’m a lifestyle blogger with a passion for writing, photography, and exploring new places. I started this blog when I was 18 years old to share what I was learning about the world with family and friends. I’ve since grown into a freelance writer, blogger, and photographer with a growing audience. I hope you find inspiration and motivation while reading through my work!