The internet was created to make sharing information easier, but over time it has become a natural extension of the way we communicate with each other. Today, as our personal information is continuously harvested and a pandemic forces even more of our working and social lives online, understanding this global network is more important than ever.
For the past 50 years, a struggle has unfolded between thinkers, technologists, and creators within the internet community on one side and the influence of governments and corporations on the other. The former generally advocates an open internet that’s free for all to access, while the latter pushes for a closed internet that’s more structured and controlled.
This conflict is entering a new phase. Tensions have flared around the increased
centralization of web services, which collect troves of vulnerable data and are controlled by large companies and effective monopolies. As the number of global internet users continues to grow and the network becomes increasingly indispensable, the latest battles revolve around personal data ownership, privacy, and security.
Over the last decade, new technologies have enabled the promise of developing alternatives to the internet’s centralized hubs, inspiring a movement toward the decentralization of data and power. Instead of proprietary infrastructure, monopolistic internet businesses, and monetization strategies that feed on attention and surveillance, decentralized technologies can enable secure products and services that safeguard privacy and restore balance to the web.
With that in mind, here’s a brief history of how we got here…
1963 • J.C.R. Licklider, a director at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), is studying systems to support military “command and control.” Addressing a memo to “ Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network,” he describes a time-sharing network with standard languages that researchers can use to access data and programs from different computers.
1969 • ARPANET launches, creating the core of what will become the internet. The project will grow from an initial four-node network to gradually connect an increasing number of computer science projects at universities and government institutions. Building on the work of computer scientist Leonard Kleinrock, it implements the concept of dividing data into packets that can be efficiently transmitted across different network paths and reassembled at their destination.
1972 • Electrical engineer Robert Kahn gives the first public demonstration of the ARPANET at the International Computer Communication Conference, featuring terminals that can access computers located across the country. Email, the internet’s first killer app, is integrated into the network’s File Transfer Protocol (FTP), the standard for transferring files between computers.
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1974 • Kahn enlists computer scientist Vinton Cerf to help expand ARPANET by integrating other packet-switching networks into a unified “internetwork.” They co-author “ A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection” and outline minimal design principles to realize this vision: open connectivity and distribution, with no central administration or control. Meanwhile, Ted Nelson, who coined the term “hypertext” to refer to a nonlinear digital system for interlinked content, publishes the book Computer Lib/Dream Machines. He envisions a networked personal computing revolution that will counter the bureaucratic centralization of mainframe computers dominated by IBM.
1978 • Kahn and Cerf develop the internet’s core communications protocol suite, TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), providing standards for error-free data transmission (TCP) and identifying networked destinations (IP). The underlying design supports an open network of networks, with the computer hosts on its edges responsible for data integrity and reliability. Technical challenges discourage efforts to securely encrypt messages.
1983 • ARPANET is officially switched to TCP/IP, establishing the fundamental standard that the internet remains based on today. The US military separates its own network from ARPANET, and the Domain Name System is created to automate the managing of names and addresses on the growing network. A 21-year-old UCLA student and a 17-year-old are arrested for illegally accessing computer systems over ARPANET, including one operated by the US Department of Defense.
1988 • A Cornell researcher’s network malware — the first computer worm — shows the inherent vulnerability of the internet. The Morris worm infects roughly 10 percent of connected machines, slowing them to a standstill. Cybersecurity becomes a major concern as global data grows rapidly and companies storing sensitive and confidential information are routinely targeted.
1989 • America Online (AOL), CompuServe, and Prodigy begin to emerge as the Big Three online service providers. They introduce millions of users to dial-up messaging, email, and web portals over the coming years, but try to confine them within proprietary, closed platforms.
1990 • Tim Berners-Lee, a scientist at the European physics lab CERN, develops a prototype for the World Wide Web, an application layer running on top of the internet that’s based on hypertext. The result is a system for accessing resources online using Uniform Resource Locators (web address URLs), the HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and HyperText Markup Language (HTML), making the internet more accessible for users and application developers. Meanwhile, ARPANET is decommissioned. The following year, the National Science Foundation, which oversees the “internet backbone” of data routes and infrastructure (NSFNET), adjusts its policy to allow commercial traffic.
1993 • CERN officially puts the World Wide Web in the public domain. The Mosaic web browser, created at the National Center for Supercomputing at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, is the first web browser to display images next to text, letting users easily navigate between web pages. The following year, Mosaic co-creator Marc Andreessen releases Netscape Navigator, which will quickly become the most dominant web portal, and the US government begins privatizing the NSFNET backbone.
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1996 • The US Congress passes the Communications Decency Act to regulate indecency and obscenity online. The act includes Section 230, which protects “interactive computer services” from being treated as the publisher of third-party content and grants immunity from civil liability if the services make a good faith effort to restrict prohibited material. John Perry Barlow, a founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, publishes “ A Declaration of the Independence of the Internet,” proclaiming that no institution can control the network.
1997 • The phrase “the Great Firewall of China” first appears in a Wired article in reference to the Chinese government’s desire to control internet access. Beijing implements various restrictive laws and technologies over the coming years to impose digital censorship within its borders, establishing a model for other national governments to claim sovereignty over the internet and attempt to limit the flow of information.
1998 • Netscape releases the source code of its browser suite, creating the Mozilla project and inspiring the open-source software movement. Later that year, Google is founded, innovating the business of search and clicks. Despite an initial aversion to advertising (“We expect that advertising funded search engines will be inherently biased towards the advertisers and away from the needs of the consumers,” wrote founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page), the company’s expanding portfolio of free services will be supported by using search data to create detailed user profiles for targeted advertising in the years that follow, as it progressively integrates search results with ad-serving opportunities. IPv6, the most current version of Internet Protocol, is introduced. It is capable of supporting 340 undecillion (or 340 trillion-trillion-trillion) unique IP addresses.
1999 • Napster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing service, sparks debate and lawsuits about intellectual property and digital property rights. Meanwhile, Salesforce.com starts offering online business applications to enterprises via its website, building a model for subscription software services that run on proprietary servers.
2000 • The dot-com bubble begins to pop. Triggered in part by Netscape’s wildly successful IPO in 1995, venture capitalists and investment banks rushed to get startups listed as public companies without regard to product potential or profit margins, and the seemingly endless growth of tech stocks had inflated the Nasdaq fivefold in five years. But by 2000, the capital supporting the bubble was drying up and publicly traded dotcoms started folding. The rapid fall and consolidation reduced competition, creating room for companies like Google, Amazon, and Apple to amass market share. It also heightened the stakes for tech startups to monetize quickly, paving the way for digital advertising to become the dominant business model of the web.
Digital advertisers have steadily transformed the internet into a surveillance machine from which there is no escape.
2001 • BitTorrent, a decentralized communication protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing, is released. The open-source technology enables users to download large files from multiple hosts at once rather than from a single server, but the tech is also used to pirate content. Meanwhile, after a four-year process of vetting several cryptographic protocols, the National Institute of Standards and Technology publishes the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES), a symmetric key encryption algorithm originally known as Rijndael that was created by Belgian cryptographers Vincent Rijmen and Joan Daemen. It replaces the Data Encryption Standard (DES), which was adopted in 1977 but had become vulnerable to brute-force attacks, building a foundation for more advanced cryptographic standards as e-commerce and web services grow in the 21st century.
2004 • Facebook is created, signaling a new era of social media on the internet. Within a decade, the company will go public and begin aggressively monetizing users, becoming an advertising behemoth to rival Google. The platform will face increasing scrutiny for the promotion of hate speech and sensationalized content, as well as the spreading of misinformation and political propaganda.
2006 • Amazon Web Services begins marketing IT infrastructure to businesses, and the term “cloud computing” gains traction, referring to the storage and processing of data and applications on remote (and typically proprietary) servers. Cloud computing allows for easy data storage, access, and processing, supporting the mobile web revolution to come. But data centralization brings security and privacy challenges. Later that year, Google buys YouTube, which is barely a year old, and Twitter launches, as the march of companies creating user-generated social media continues.
2007 • Apple introduces the iPhone, which will quickly evolve into a dominant platform of the mobile web. The transition to mobile creates more access, more apps, and more data — as well as increased privacy and surveillance issues. By 2020, mobile web traffic will account for approximately half of all web activity worldwide.
2009 • Satoshi Nakamoto launches the Bitcoin network, a digital cash system on a decentralized, cryptographically-secure peer-to-peer protocol — the first blockchain. The technology enables a vision of decentralized networks with distributed consensus that securely execute verifiable transactions without the need for central authorities.
2010 • The Federal Communications Commission asserts the principles of net neutrality and an open internet, holding that internet service providers (ISPs) must offer equal access to all internet communications without favoring particular sites or services. A regulatory fight intensifies in the coming years as the FCC establishes net neutrality rules and then, under new leadership, votes to repeal them.
2013 • CIA subcontractor Edward Snowden leaks classified files that show how the National Security Agency is monitoring the communications of US citizens with help from telecom firms, as well as surveilling online communications by tapping into the servers of internet companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo. The news also reveals the sharing of intercepted data across a global surveillance system. Meanwhile, a massive data breach at Yahoo is kept quiet. The company will disclose years later that the attack affected all three billion of its user accounts.
2015 • The Ethereum Virtual Machine, an open-source, blockchain computing platform, launches. It quickly becomes a popular way for developers to deploy decentralized apps that range from games and social media to decentralized finance (DeFi).
2016 • The DFINITY Foundation is founded in Zurich to build the Internet Computer, an extension of the public internet that combines blockchain technology and novel cryptography to create a decentralized environment for interoperable software that runs directly on the open network.
TODAY • Building on the growth of blockchain protocols, advanced decentralized networks have the potential to foster new, user-oriented service models that can replace surveillance capitalism and create a more resilient and secure internet that redirects value and control to the public.
By Daniel McGlynn
Daniel McGlynn is a writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He took his first assignment about bitcoin and digital currencies in 2014, and has been writing about emerging decentralized technologies ever since.
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