Analyzing Internet Consolidation Trends

The concentration of Internet traffic, infrastructure, services, and users on a handful of providers is a growing concern because of the economic, political, and reliability implications of these consolidation trends.

Northwestern Engineering’s Fabian E. Bustamante believes Internet centralization could amplify the impact of vulnerabilities, increase the risk of a captive market, and significantly reduce user privacy by exposing a more complete user profile to a few cross-market Internet providers.

Bustamante is a professor of computer science at the McCormick School of Engineering. He directs the AquaLab, a research group that investigates large-scale networks and distributed systems.

He explained that, when accessing a website, users engage with many Internet services. Accessing a website requires contacting at least one Domain Name System (DNS) server to find the address of the server hosting the site's content. In addition, a website may host content on one or more Content Distribution Networks (CDNs) for increased reliability and performance. If a hosting server uses HTTPS, a client may also need to contact one or more Certificate Authorities (CAs) to verify the validity of the servers.

Fabian E. Bustamante“A popular website could rely on third-party providers for all these critical services,” Bustamante said.

Using the Web as a relatively accessible proxy for the Internet to determine commonly used third-party services, a research team including Bustamante, computer science PhD student Rashna Kumar, Sana Asif (MS ’21), and Elise Lee (BS/MS ’21) conducted studies in April 2021 and April 2022 based on region-specific, top-500 popular websites. They accessed a total of 16,774 unique websites from vantage points in 50 countries.

The team demonstrated that dependencies on a third-party DNS, CDN, or CA provider vary widely around the world, ranging from 19 to 76 percent of websites.

“Interestingly, despite this high variability, our results suggest a highly concentrated market of third-party providers: three providers across all countries serve an average of 92 percent, and Google, by itself, serves an average of 70 percent of the surveyed websites,” Bustamante said. “Perhaps more problematically, we found that these values increased a year later by an average of approximately 14 percent for CDNs.”

To monitor and report on these trends, Bustamante and his team are collaborating with the global nonprofit Internet Society to build an industry-strength version of the “World Global Index of Internet Consolidation” prototype site built by Kumar and Ying Zhang, a master’s degree student in computer science.

Bustamante and his team are currently expanding their analysis to additional countries and investigating combined indexes that may capture the complex socio-economic factors that determine a country's dependence on third-party Internet providers.

“An improved understanding of trends towards centralization on a global scale, and of their potential explanatory factors, has a number of applications for different stakeholders — from billions of users that depend on these systems to policymakers and network operators —informing investments and policy decisions,” Bustamante said.

The research team’s work was published in a paper titled “Each at its Own Pace: Third-Party Dependency and Centralization Around the World” in the Proceedings of the 2023 ACM SIGMETRICS International Conference on Measurement and Modeling of Computer Systems.

McCormick News Article