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What’s the Difference Between the Web and the Internet?

In general usage, the terms seem almost synonymous. In practice, I suppose, it matters little if we misuse one to mean the other.

But they’re two very different things. More precisely, one is a strict subset of the other. And that other is much, much larger than we think.

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The internet

The internet1 is an interconnected network of computers. In practice, it’s the interconnected network of computers that spans the globe.

But that’s all it is. “Internet” refers to the network of computers all communicating and exchanging data with one another. Nothing more.

InternetMore specifically, it doesn’t imply what form that data takes.

The web

The web (more formally, the World Wide Web) is the collection of webpages made available on web servers for viewing in your web browser. Whenever you fire up your browser — Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, or something else — you view pages that are part of the web.

In its strictest (and some would say most correct) sense, the web is those pages, and only those pages, all of which can be viewed in web browsers. That’s all.

Another way to look at it is that every reference that begins with “http” or “https” refers to to something on the web. Conversely, all things that can be referenced that way are on the web, and anything that cannot be accessed via a web browser is not.

The internet — the network of computers — is used to deliver the content you view on the web. The web, in a very real sense, is a proper subset of the internet. The web is on the internet, but the internet contains much more than the web.

On the internet beyond the web

Everything you do online that isn’t viewed via a web browser is not the web. There’s a lot.

  • Email
  • Voice-over-IP services like Skype and others
  • File transfer protocols like FTP or BitTorrent
  • Video streaming services like Netflix (when not viewed in a web browser)
  • Online games like World of Warcraft

These and others are all services that live on the internet, but they are not part of the World Wide Web.

Confusion, of course, reigns

But what about email services like Outlook.com and Gmail? They supply email through your web browser, so doesn’t that mean email is on the web?

Yes and no.

Online email services like Outlook.com, Gmail, and others provide a web-based interface to your email. But the actual transmission of email from one place to another doesn’t happen over the web — it happens through mail-specific protocols between mail servers on the internet. If you use a desktop email program2, you’re not using the web to access your email; you’re using those same mail-specific protocols to send and receive email directly from your PC.

Another good example of confusion is services like Netflix.

In some cases, they use dedicated software — such as an application on your gaming console or mobile device — to provide their content. This is not the web, either; it’s some service-specific streaming protocol that traverses the internet. In other cases, you view the content in your web browser on your PC. In this case, the content is, indeed, delivered over the web3.

Masquerading non-web as web

Finally, there’s one more source of confusion: attempts to bypass blocking.

VPNs are not the web. VPNs are a communications protocol between your computer and a VPN service on the internet. Unfortunately, because VPNs are often used to hide your activities from prying eyes, those prying eyes — like government-controlled ISPs — can often block VPN services completely.

One approach occasionally used by VPNs (and other services that might be prone to being blocked) to try to bypass those blocks is to make their traffic “look like” web traffic. They might use actual web protocols (like http or https) to establish their communications, even though they are not themselves transporting web pages.

If you’ve ever seen advanced instructions to reconfigure a tool that isn’t working to use port 80 or port 443, that’s exactly what’s being attempted. Port 80 is the http port, and port 443 https.

Pedantic?

On one hand, the difference between “the web” and “the internet” might seem irrelevant, and in many cases it probably is. You use what you use, and it does what it does on whatever it happens to use — web or internet.

On the other hand, as we’ve seen so often, computers and the people who support them4 can be quite pedantic. Specificity and exactness is often the difference between understanding a scenario or getting an answer right or wrong. While “internet versus web” isn’t something that comes up often, understanding the difference, at least conceptually, is worthwhile.

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Footnotes & references

1: There are conflicting standards as to whether or not “internet” should be capitalized as a formal name. I’ve standardized on lower case, treating it as a common technology.

2: Or mobile device.

3: It’s actually even muddier than that, since Netflix on the web in your browser may use the same non-web streaming protocols behind the scenes to deliver the video.

4: Yes, that includes me.

9 comments on “What’s the Difference Between the Web and the Internet?”

  1. I believe a lot of the confusion comes from the fact that most people do all of their internet-based activity via their web browser where their web browser or the target websites run the programs which perform non-web-related internet activities, such as file transfer, email, and video viewing etc. Not many people use FTP, email or streaming programs.

  2. Good article. I enjoyed learning the fine details between ‘The Web and The Internet.’ Leo, I like your upbeat style.

  3. Leo wrote, “…computers and the people who support them can be quite pedantic.” He added a footnote saying, “Yes, that includes me.”

    Here is some comments from someone who presumably is even more pedantic.

    Leo provided the following definitions:

    — “The internet as an interconnected network of computers.”

    — “The web… is the collection of webpages made available on web servers for viewing in your web browser.”

    Using these definitions, the following claim is obviously false,

    “The web, in a very real sense, is a proper subset of the internet.”

    Since the internet is a set of computers, a proper subset of the internet can only be a smaller set of computers, e.g., the computers located in a particular country.

    The web, on the other hand, is the collection of webpages (files) that are stored on computers that are part of the internet and can be accessed using a browser.

    A set of files (the web) and a set of computers (the internet) are very different entities and hence one cannot claim that “one is a strict subset of the other”.

    Re “There are conflicting standards as to whether or not “internet” should be capitalized…”

    There is a significant difference between an internet and the Internet.

    Any set of interconnected computers is an internet.

    The Internet is “the interconnected network of computers that spans the globe.”

    Thus, there can be an unlimited number of internets but only one Internet. Moreover, there is an enormous number of internets that are not connected to the Internet.

    • The Web is a subset of the Internet because it is comprised of the computers which host websites. The rest of the internet doesn’t host websites. It comprises the vast majority of the Internet, but it’s still a subset. It may seem like it’s not a subset because many people, possibly the majority of people, only use the Internet via their browser and utilize the other functions of the Internet, email, FTP etc, via Web pages.
      And when you refer to internets. In most cases, those would be more properly referred to as intranets, LANs, or simply as networks.

  4. Mr Mark Jacobs of Team Leo,

    If you had bothered to read attentively Leo’s article and my response, you would have noticed that I referred to Leo’s definitions of the Internet and of the Web. I actually quoted Leo’s definitions in my response.

    You made a futile attempt to refute my claims by providing your own definition of the web, which is substantially different from Leo’s definition.

    One could expect a person on “Team Leo” to be sensible.

    • Wow, given your expositions I’ll need to re-evaluate the meaning of my life and the purpose of the universe. Or is it the Universe?
      One would expect a person of your stature to chill out.

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