Revealed: Secret headquarters of the world’s internet
By Our Investigations Team
The world’s internet is controlled by a secret facility on a former World War Two radar base in Suffolk, we can reveal.
Everything from bandwidth to storage, from operations of the globe’s largest websites like Google to online banking, is overseen in a network of underground bunkers at the former RAF Bawdsey centre.
The Suffolk Gazette was given an exclusive tour of the high-security facility, including its dumping ground for long-gone internet services such as Friends Reunited and MySpace, as well as a close-up look of the radar masts that allow WiFi to work throughout the world.
First we were shown the nerve centre of the world’s internet, which features a bank of hi-tech hardware with dials showing the current broadband connection speed of networks around the world.
The system features a large metal wheel – so that if the internet becomes too slow during peak periods, bandwidth can be increased by turning the wheel in a clockwise direction. Mr Robert Jameson manages the speed service, and is pictured above next to his complex machinery.
He explained this is the most important room of the whole site, because if the power is cut, internet everywhere will be lost, sending the entire world into chaos. As such, an important lever behind the door says: “Do not pull lever,” because if it was pulled, the system would shut down.
It has been an effective safeguard. Only once was it accidentally pulled when cleaner Mrs Janet Timkins, from Orford, knocked it with her backside while vacuuming the room.
The next part of our fascinating tour – which we secured after sending a Freedom of Information request to the UK Government – took us to a series of rooms where some of the world’s biggest websites and services are managed.
First up was the Google Room, where operators wait for internet users to ask a question on the popular search engine. When a search term comes in, they quickly look through their archives of data in order to return the desired answers.
Pictured below are Google experts Ralph Biggins and Steve Johnson searching for answers to serve up to an internet user in New Zealand who had asked for some ideas about how to roast a chicken.
Next door was the fascinating YouTube Room. This is where customers send reels of film that they would like uploading to the internet. Thousands of reels arrive each day via Royal Mail, and are then run on banks of complex machines before being available to view by millions of YouTubers. Most of the films are rather boring, but the occasional one has the ability to go “viral” and be viewed by many millions of people.
Another room also relates to internet film but serves a very different purpose. It is behind locked doors because only those over the age of 18 can enter. This is the PornHub room. Like the Google Room, this area employs staff to serve requests from internet users – only this time it is for certain types of pornography movie clips. All preferences and fetishes are catered for.
The photo below shows just some of the staff looking for suitable videos requested by PornHub users. Mr Ron Jeremy, who is the manager of this room, says it is the most popular to work in, even though it can affect the staffs’ eyesight. “We always get requests from staff in other departments to transfer here,” he chuckled, with a rather dirty grin.
Another secure area of the Bawdsey internet facility is the Online Banking Room. This area is run like a network of tunnels, pushing cash from one part of the world to another. The operator has an impressive row of levers to use in the correct order, which sends cash electronically at high speed.
On our visit, Derek Young was pulling the strings in the banking room. He said he processes billions of pounds every day and has to undergo a full body search before he leaves for home each night.
The Suffolk Gazette receives a lot of emails from readers (via the Contact Us page), so our investigators were intrigued to be shown around the Email Room, where Pauline Thomas and Veronica Dawson were helping internet users connect with each other.
They wait to receive an incoming message and then read where the internet user wants it sent to. By connecting one end of a wire to their machine and then plugging the other end into a separate socket, then can then allow the message to reach the correct person.
“We’re not supposed to read the messages,” Mrs Dawson confided. “But some of them are terribly interesting.”
One new feature of the Email Room is the bin, which is where much of the so-called email ‘spam’ is stored so it does not get forwarded to the recipient.
Talking of trash, we were shown the rubbish tip behind the Bawdsey facility. This is where outdated internet sites and hardware is dumped, and includes such items as Friends Reunited, MySpace, as well as something called Dial-Up connection devices.
While our top team was outside, it caught a glimpse of the Bawdsey radar masts, which were originally used in World War Two, but which now allow internet users to employ something called WiFi, whereby folk can connect their devices to the internet without the need for wires and cables.
Our team was not allowed to ask why the Internet control centre had been set up in Suffolk. But our investigation shows that Tim Berners-Lee, the Brit who devised HTML protocol (whatever that is) used to enjoy childhood holidays on the Suffolk coast, and explored the Bawdsey site. He requested it house his Internet invention.