How the Internet Really Works Cover

How the Internet Really Works

An Illustrated Guide to Protocols, Privacy, Censorship, and Governance
December 2020, 120 pp.

Look Inside!

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The Internet, Demystified

The internet has profoundly changed interpersonal communication, but most of us don’t really understand how it works. What enables information to travel across the internet? Can we really be anonymous and private online? Who controls the internet, and why is that important? And… what’s with all the cats?

How the Internet Really Works answers these questions and more. Using clear language and whimsical illustrations, the authors translate highly technical topics into accessible, engaging prose that demystifies the world’s most intricately linked computer network. Alongside a feline guide named Catnip, you’ll learn about:

  • The “How-What-Why” of nodes, packets, and internet protocols
  • Cryptographic techniques to ensure the secrecy and integrity of your data
  • Censorship, ways to monitor it, and means for circumventing it
  • Cybernetics, algorithms, and how computers make decisions
  • Centralization of internet power, its impact on democracy, and how it hurts human rights
  • Internet governance, and ways to get involved

This book is also a call to action, laying out a roadmap for using your newfound knowledge to influence the evolution of digitally inclusive, rights-respecting internet laws and policies.

Whether you’re a citizen concerned about staying safe online, a civil servant seeking to address censorship, an advocate addressing worldwide freedom of expression issues, or simply someone with a cat-like curiosity about network infrastructure, you will be delighted — and enlightened — by Catnip’s felicitously fun guide to understanding how the internet really works!

Read our Q&A with two of the book's co-authors!

Author Bio 

ARTICLE 19 is an international non-profit organization that seeks to promote, develop, and protect freedom of expression, including access to information. Headquartered in London, with offices in Bangladesh, Brazil, Kenya, Mexico, Senegal, Tunisia, Myanmar, and the USA, ARTICLE 19 works to bridge the knowledge gap about Internet infrastructure and why it matters for people.

Ulrike Uhlig, Mallory Knodel, Niels ten Oever, Corinne Cath

Table of contents 

Chapter 1: How Is the Internet Networked?
Chapter 2: What Form Does Information Take on the Internet?
Chapter 3: How Do Devices Communicate on the Internet?
Chapter 4: How Does Information Travel on the Internet?
Chapter 5: How Do People Relate to Information on the Internet?
Chapter 6: What Can Interfere with Information Traveling Across the Internet?
Chapter 7: How Can Information Travel Anonymously over the Internet?
Chapter 8: What Control Do Machines Have?
Chapter 9: How Does the Internet Build on Previous Technology?
Chapter 10: Who Controls the Internet?
Chapter 11: How Is Power Distributed over the Decentralized Internet?
Chapter 12: How Can Civil Society Engage in Internet Governance?
Keyword Index

View the detailed Table of Contents
View the Keyword Index


"Comprehensive and presents the subject well. It will be very helpful to all people doing IME, digital literacy training, and other educational activities."
Stephane Bortzmeyer

"In How the Internet Really Works . . . the reader gets a short, interesting, and entertaining overview of the Internet . . . in a jargon-free style."
—Ben Rothke, Senior Information Security Manager, Tapad

Extra Stuff 

The New York Times discussed contributors Mallory Knodel and Niels Ten Oever's work in a piece on updating computing language.

Watch the authors read a chapter of the book for Privacy Week.

Check out contributor Mallory Knodel's interview on KOOP Radio's People United podcast.


View the latest errata.