BBC NEWS | Technology | Unsung heroes save net from chaos
Crack teams of volunteers keep the net online and functioning, according to leading internet lawyer Jonathan Zittrain of Harvard University.
The way data is divided up and sent around the internet in many jumps makes it "delicate and vulnerable" to attacks or mistakes, he said.
However, he added, the "random acts of kindness" of these unsung heroes quietly keep the net in working order.
Professor Zittrain's comments came at the TED Global conference in Oxford.
Incidents such as when the Pakistan government took YouTube offline in 2008 exposed the web's underlying fragility, he explained.
But a team of volunteers - unpaid, unauthorised and largely unknown to most people - rolled into action and restored the service within hours.
"It's like when the Bat signal goes up and Batman answers the call," Professor Zittrain told BBC News.
The fragility of the internet's architecture was largely due to its origins, said Professor Zittrain.
He said it had been conceived with "one great limitation and with one great freedom".
"Their limitation was that they didn't have any money," he told the TED audience in Oxford.