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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But that’s all it is. “Internet” refers to the network of computers all communicating and exchanging data with one another. Nothing more.
More specifically, it doesn’t imply what form that data takes.
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.
- 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.
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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