Puppet Masters of the Internet
Nearly everyone on the Internet knows about Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, and Jeff Bezos. Savvy geeks might even recognize Internet pioneers like Vint Cerf and Marc Andreessen.
But among the most powerful people on the Net are individuals whose names are unknown to the teeming masses on the InterWebs. Some of them control vital pieces of Internet infrastructure. Others decide which companies get funded, which websites get the lion's share of the traffic, or whether sites will live to see another day.
Who really rules the Net? Read on. Just don't get on the bad side of any of these ten power gurus.
Official title: Principal engineer at Google
Secret identity: Search ninja
As head of Google's Search Quality (anti-Web-spam) team, Cutts is the guy who decides whether your website gets chucked down into the basement of Google page rankings for being too "spammy." Over the past two years, Google has changed its search algorithms several times to lower the position of content farms, scrapers, ad-heavy pages, and other less worthy sites in Google's search results.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: One day you're king of the Google hill; the next day your site's holding a one-way ticket to Palookaville--and all it takes is a tweak of an algorithm.
Lawrence E. Strickling
Official title: Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information
Secret identity: The root master
Strickling may look like a typical federal bureaucrat, but as chief of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) he wields ultimate authority over the 13 DNS Root Servers that direct all of the Internet's traffic. Type www.pcworld.com into your browser, and these machines translate it into an Internet protocol address (18.104.22.168) that Web servers can understand.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: Repressive governments often use DNS filtering to block access to websites that they don't approve of--and such filtering also happened to be a key part of the SOPA and PIPA bills recently debated in the U.S. Congress.
Official title: CEO of Reddit
Secret identity: Web traffic controller
Reddit has surpassed Digg and Slashdot as the preeminent uber-geek aggregation site on the Web, thanks in large part to its role in initiating the "Internet Blackout" to protest SOPA and PIPA earlier this year. A member of the elite Silicon Valley PayPal Mafia, as well as former director of engineering at Facebook, Wong is also a consigliere at Quora, the question/answer social network.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: If Reddit loves your site you're flooded with traffic. If it doesn't? Look what happened to SOPA and PIPA.
Official title: President and CEO of ICANN
Secret identity: Master of all domains
As head honcho of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Beckstrom wields ultimate control over which top-level domains (for example, .com, .edu, and .biz) get approved. This year ICANN plans to expand the current number of TLDs from 22 to possibly hundreds, providing a massive economic boost for major domain registrars--some of whom sit on ICANN's board. Beckstrom will retire as CEO in July after accusing his fellow board members of ethical conflicts.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: With a few months left on the job, Beckstrom's got nothing to lose. And though ICANN has yet to name his successor, we understand Voldemort, Darth Vader, and Dr. Evil have all applied for the job.
Official title: Architect at Cloudera
Secret identity: Open sourceror
This open-source search guru is the creator of Hadoop, software that lets geeks manipulate massive amounts of data across multiple machines--creating the Big Data revolution that lets banks, telecom companies, social networks, and the government know more about you than they ever did before. He is also chair of the Apache Software Foundation, which oversees the open-source server software that two-thirds of the world's websites use.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: He's a virtual one-man Google.
Official title: President of Clarium Capital Management
Secret identity: PayPal Mafioso
Made wealthy when eBay bought PayPal in 1999, the former PayPal CEO was an early investor in Facebook and runs his own $3 billion hedge fund. He's also capo di tutti capi of the PayPal Mafia, whose members went on to fund and/or launch some of the most successful companies on the planet (YouTube, LinkedIn, Yelp, Flickr, and Digg) and beyond (SpaceX).
Why you shouldn't mess with him: Because he can make start-ups an offer they cannot refuse.
Jim Q. Crowe
Official title: CEO of Level 3 Communications
Secret identity: Fiber king
When Level 3 completed its acquisition of Global Crossing last fall, it became the 800-pound gorilla of Internet backbone providers, offering more than twice as many network connections as its nearest rival. Via peering and transit agreements, Level 3 provides fiber-optic voice and data connections for thousands of service providers in the United States, Latin America, and Europe.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: If your ISP gets into a spat with a backbone provider--as Comcast did with Level 3 in the fall of 2010--you could find yourself cut off from big chunks of the Internet. Better bring a good book to read.
Official title: Investor
Secret identity: Russian oligarch
The Moscow native created Mail.ru, the most popular website in Russia and the sixth largest in the world, according to Comscore. As founder of the $12 billion Digital Sky Technologies (now Mail.ru Group) investment fund, Milner was an early and influential sponsor of Facebook, Twitter, Zynga, Spotify, and Groupon. He now owns a $100 million home in Silicon Valley and a piece of every startup coming out of the Valley's fertile Y Combinator incubator.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: Those alleged ties to Vladimir Putin? All just Internet rumors, we swear.
Official title: Graduate Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research
Secret identity: Privacy badass
Self-made privacy geek Soghoian specializes in shaming organizations into doing a better job of protecting our personal information, whether he's nudging Google to adopt SSL encryption for Gmail, revealing how often Sprint shared user location data with the cops (8 million times as of October 2009), or making a mockery of the TSA's airport security. Soghoian also briefly advised the FTC on privacy issues until his bad-boy methods rubbed his bosses the wrong way. His latest target? The U.S. Congress and CISPA.
Why you shouldn't mess with him: When Facebook's public relations firm surreptitiously pitched Soghoian on a story smearing Google's privacy practices, Soghoian outed them--giving Facebook an even bigger PR fiasco to clean up.
Black Hat Hackers
Official title: Unemployed
Secret identity: Too many to name
The script kiddies at Anonymous have nothing on the real black hats, whose identities are rarely revealed but whose impact is rapidly growing. Whether they're privateers extorting money from online gambling sites or government agents spreading targeted malware attacks like Stuxnet, criminal hackers can pull off real damage--not just pranks and protests. With vital infrastructure such as water and power utilities run by aging and vulnerable industrial control systems, we all have reason to worry.
Why you shouldn't mess with them: You're kidding, right?
[Did we miss anyone? Nominate your top Web puppeteers below.]
Follow Dan Tynan on Twitter.