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The impetus for computers to communicate grew during the 1950s when the U.S. military sought technologies to protect air space. From the early days of packet switching (a means of bundling separate “packages” of information to transmit them more quickly), pioneers in the field of communications engineered increasingly complex computer networks—resulting in the Internet, used in 2010 by over 1.73 billion people worldwide.
During the 1940s and 1950s, calculators (Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer, ENIAC) and subsequently computers (UNIVersal Automatic Computer, UNIVAC; Whirlwind) were heavy, imposing, and costly machines reserved for a handful of specialists, and these machines did not communicate with each other. In the space of less than forty years, the world of computing, which was still centralized during the 1960s, entered the public arena and enabled data, sound, and images to be circulated across the globe. This networked information and communication society is embodied by the Internet, a global network interconnecting a growing number of computer networks of all sizes. During the period between the launch of project in the second half of the 1960s by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in the United States (which involved a few American universities) and the growth in Internet users to in excess of 1.73 billion as of 2010, the applications, players, and issues have evolved and taken on a global dimension.
From ARPANET to the Internet: The American Genesis
Even though computing power was a costly element, the need to place this rare resource within the reach of as many people as possible emerged very quickly in the history of computing. This rationale of maximizing the utilization of machines was rapidly joined by other motivations for connecting computers to each other. From data sharing for management purposes to reservation systems and command and control, the 1950s saw the first developments, particularly in the United States, in networks that put computers in contact with each other—the military naturally leading the way with large-scale projects such as the air defense program SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment). The goal of this program was to give the U.S. Air Force a system that would enable it to detect, identify, and intercept any air threat to U.S. territory. To achieve this, a range of devices, radars, computers, planes, and vessels needed to be connected via a telecommunication system using telegraphic and radiorelay links. The SABRE (Semi-Automatic Business Research Environment) airline reservation system was also, between the 1950s and 1960s, an essential stage in this evolution, demonstrating the myriad possibilities that these networks offered for commercial activities. These systems incorporated the notion of “time sharing” (which allowed computers to process tasks in less time, users to access computers directly without necessarily going through an operator, and a more “interactive” form of computing), but they went beyond this to deliver a highly innovative usage of computing. They ushered in the era of On Line Transaction Processing (OLTP) and the use of devices for accessing a complete network of computers.
Occupying a middle ground between telecommunications and computing but primarily developed by computer scientists, new concepts emerged between the 1950s and 1960s. This was the case with packet switching (dividing messages into packets, transmitting the packets individually, and reassembling the messages when they arrived at their destinations), of which three strands can be identified. The first is a military concern and is found in the work of Paul Baran, who from 1959 at the Rand Corporation studied the possibility of creating a communication network incorporating redundancies that would make it virtually immune to enemy attacks. To this end, he proposed a project to the U.S. Air Force based on the digitization of information and its transmission in blocks or packets of information of an identical size. The project was never carried out, but the ideas on which it was based were nevertheless fairly widely disseminated. Professor Leonard Kleinrock was at the same time working independently on a network architecture. In July 1961, while at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he published a paper on packet switching theory, followed by a first book on the subject in 1964. Shortly thereafter, Donald Davies of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory (near London) devised a project that was technically fairly similar in its concept but focused on interactiveness rather than security; he developed a packet switching network project beginning in 1968. These ideas found their way into the project developed at the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) from the end of the 1960s. This agency, created in 1958 against the backdrop of the Cold War, was a response to a double challenge—externally, the space race (launch of Sputnik by the Russians in 1957) and, internally, the reorganization of military research.
Going much further than what was envisaged under the SAGE program, the agency planned the creation of a Command and Control network, which was officially approved in the spring of 1967. The aim was to implement a network allowing the interconnection of incompatible computers and software. At the end of 1967, ARPA concluded its first contract with the Stanford Research Institute to define the future network’s specifications. Elmer Shapiro was the main architect behind this. Lawrence Roberts took charge of the project at ARPA within the Information Processing Techniques Office. In 1968, the Network Working Group was founded, the first director being Stephen Crocker, and a fully-fledged team was formed to create the ambitious ARPANET project to build a network of different computers based on packet switching. Pioneers in the field of networks such as Leonard Kleinrock, former colleagues of Lawrence Roberts at UCLA, and several students, including Vinton Cerf and Jon Postel, contributed to its creation. Robert Kahn entered the picture in 1968 through Bolt, Beranek, and Newman (BBN), a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which won the contract with ARPA to create IMPs or Interface Message Processors, which made communication between different computers possible. In 1969, the network already had four connections between universities in the United States, the first being established with UCLA, the other centers being the Stanford Research Institute; the University of California, Santa Barbara; and the University of Utah.
The program strongly emphasized the twin benefit of the initiative: creating a full-scale test of what a computer network could be and, at the same time, giving university laboratories and the military a tool that was already pre-operational. The annual budgets ran into several millions of dollars. Although, following a call to tender (for contracts) the development of links between the various centers was entrusted to BBN, issues pertaining to communication between the centers and the network were specifically tackled by the centers. Academics were very closely involved in defining the network. In the summer of 1968, Elmer Shapiro held a seminar attended by the programmers of the various centers due to connect to the future network. This would prove decisive. Because the project did not have to factor in any pre-existing network infrastructure, the researchers attending were able to engage in highly innovative approaches and start work on a practically blank page. An extensive theoretical approach therefore became a part of the debates, not out of scientific “ambition” but simply as a way of laying the foundation for a radically new field. The Request for Comments (RFC) is testament to the researchers’ creativity. This was initially comprised of meeting notes. After their formalization by Steve Crocker in 1969, they were distributed on paper, and then made accessible online following the creation of File Transfer Protocol. The RFC were released to speed up exchanges of ideas and create a system of “open documentation” and works in progress.
Progress would thereafter prove fairly rapid, with the first major test successfully conducted in October 1971 during a meeting held at MIT. Just over four years after its launch, the project, now called ARPANET, had reached its goal. In 1972, the International Conference on Computer Communication saw the first public demonstration, organized by Robert Kahn. In 1974, together with Vinton Cerf, Robert Kahn published an article that defined a protocol with a decisive role in the history of the Internet, TCP, which would then become TCP/IP (Transport Control Protocol and Internet Protocol) and replace the first protocol of ARPANET, NCP (Network Control Program). The idea was to be able to connect and allow communication between numerous independent networks featuring a different design, and even radio or satellite networks using packets, which NCP did not allow, thus paving the way for the “network of networks”.
TCP/IP was not introduced at ARPANET until 1983. The military portion then separated from the network and was called MILNET, while the university portion took advantage of research efforts by the National Science Foundation to connect its powerful computers there and merged with the NSFnet network before calling itself Internet.
European researchers did not remain isolated from the explorations into general networks and packet switching from the beginning of the 1970s. They felt that general networks could act as an alternative faced with the risk of the U.S. industry, particularly IBM (International Business Machines), taking a stranglehold on the European market and on data networks. By offering network architectures that only supported their own machines (Systems Network Architecture by IBM, Decnet by Digital Equipment Corporation, etc.), manufacturers restricted the ability of users, administrations, and businesses to connect machines made by different manufacturers. Incorporating a variety of machines into networks, as ARPANET proposed, emerged as a way to secure a place for computers made by national manufacturers alongside the U.S. industry’s machines. The intention was also to prevent a gap widening between the U.S. and European countries in research and in a cutting-edge sector with promising prospects. ARPANET’s demonstration in 1972 meant that the Americans were joined by researchers from the other side of the Atlantic such as Donald Davies of NPL and John Wedlake of British Telecom; Remi Despres from the telecommunications world and Louis Pouzin of the National Institute for Research in Computer Science and Control (IRIA) in France; and Italy’s Gesualdo LeMoli and Kjell Samuelson of the Swedish Royal Institute. The French and British were heavily involved in initial explorations in packet switching. Experiments were set up during the 1970s both in research centers that focused more on computing (the NPL’s Mark I or Cyclades at IRIA) and telecommunications laboratories (Experimental Packet Switching Service at the British Post Office, Transpac in France). In 1971, the ARPANET network had already linked fifteen centers in the United States when the Cyclades project was launched at IRIA (later to become INRIA, Institut national de recherche en informatique et automatique) under the supervision of Louis Pouzin. During the 1970s, his team developed a general network based on the principle of datagrams, which were included in the TCP/IP protocol in 1974. The team submitted proposals as part of the International Network Working Group headed by Vinton Cerf and also had direct dialogue with the ARPANET team (consulting contract with BBN for example). Meanwhile, in 1973 the British completed a link between the ARPANET network and University College of London, thanks in particular to the efforts of Peter Kirstein.
Alongside national efforts, from the 1970s the Europeans teamed up to implement transnational networks such as European Informatics Network and Euronet, and their studies intensified during the 1980s, resulting in the creation of a bona fide network of European researchers. At the time there, however, was a divide between the world of computing and the world of telecommunications, which instead of datagrams preferred a technique based on virtual circuits (X25 protocol adopted in 1976), as well as a search for separate national solutions (JANET in the United Kingdom, DFN in Germany, SURFNET in the Netherlands, etc.). Nevertheless, in the mid-1980s, European researchers came together with the aim of adopting the OSI technology. Work on the Open System Interconnection began in 1977 at the International Organization for Standardization (ISO); its seven-layer model for a general network was officially adopted in 1984, but the program was abandoned during the 1990s. Although from 1986 the Europeans proposed creating a European research infrastructure called Cosine, based on OSI, in 1990 they had to acknowledge the effectiveness of TCP/ IP, at a time when the Internet was growing in Europe thanks to the EUNET network. Since 1988, this had drawn on the Unix operating system and TCP/ IP, and its main partners in Europe were the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, the National Research Institute for Mathematics and Computer Science in Amsterdam (CWI) and France’s INRIA. At the same time, experiments were conducted into telematics aimed at the general public (Prestel in Britain, Bildschirmtext in Germany); the dissemination of these interactive systems could have been extensive and enduring, as shown by the Minitel technology developed by the French telecommunications administration. But some national networks had already adopted the Internet technology, including Scandinavian countries and the Dutch network SURFnet. From 1988, a European nonprofit organization called Reseau IP Europeen (RIPE) was tasked with allocating Internet addresses in Europe. The following year, Europe was the stage for an innovation that became decisive for the growth of the Internet: the creation of the World Wide Web. Although the Internet and one of its most famous applications should not be considered one and the same, the invention of the Web marked a turning point. Its history began in 1989, when Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland, had the idea of creating operating software that was adapted to researchers’ needs in order to create a hypertext documentation system. The software that enabled the navigation known as World Wide Web was ready at the end of 1991, while browsers such as Mosaic by Marc Andreessen (of the University of Illinois), Navigator by Netscape, and Internet Explorer by Microsoft were in development. In 1994, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) was created at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. France’s INRIA was the European host of the W3C in 1995. One of its researchers, Jean-Francois Abramatic, became its chairman from 1996 to 2001, before taking up a position in 2003 at the ERCIM (European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics), which comprised representatives from around thirty European countries. The Internet then made the transition from a network of researchers to a public network and, at the start of the twenty-first century, there were already more than 105 million European Internet users, albeit slightly fewer than in the United States.
A Global and Public Expansion
During the 1990s and even more so during the 2000s, the Internet set out to win over a public owning an ever larger number of personal computers, and its growth reached every region of the globe. Although the Web directed the Internet towards the general public, other applications helped its expansion, such as the success of emails (from 1975 ARPANET had around a thousand email addresses and the first version of SMTP, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, was proposed by John Postel in 1982) and the huge success of a retail space on the Internet at the end of the 1990s. Sites such as eBay and Amazon contributed to the e-commerce boom; in 1998 the Geneva agreements confirmed the initiative backed by U.S. president Bill Clinton stating that customs duties should temporarily not apply to commercial transactions conducted on electronic networks. The organization of information searches, ranging from the service provided by Netscape, to the Google model, and portals—Yahoo!, AOL, MSN—also played a key role. The stock market flotation of Netscape in 1995, followed by other startups (eBay, Amazon) and the increase in the value of the NASDAQ (technology shares) marked the end of the 1990s, before the speculative bubble burst in 2000 (stock market crisis).
More recent applications have altered both usages and the Internet model. In 1999, fostered by broadband and emerging alongside Napster, was the deployment of peer-to-peer (P2P, a class of applications dedicated to the sharing of resources between peers). P2P offers a mode of operation different to that of the client-server model: the data exchanged are spread across the machines of all participants; each person can download files from any machine connected to the network and make their own files available to others.
The popular uses have overshadowed the organizational and technical aspects and the words “Internet” and “Web” are often used without distinction. For most people, the Internet is about surfing the Web, sending and receiving emails, using search engines like Google, and reading and writing blogs and wikis, being a part of social networks like Facebook (the world’s largest social Networking website, founded in 2004) and Youtube (a video sharing website, founded in 2005), and participating in e-commerce. The indexed Web contains at least 8.06 billion web pages, Facebook more than 350 million active users in 2009, and nomadic access is also developing, reconsidering Internet mobility.
Internet applications often raise issues of a legal nature regarding liability law and the handling of personal data and intellectual property, which are made more complex by the fact that the network is deployed globally. Security issues linked with the problems of spam and cybercrime are also a concern. Aside from these factors, two themes are currently drawing the international community’s attention: the digital divide and Internet governance. The International Telecommunication Union has highlighted its aim to “connect the unconnected by 2015” and to “achieve equitable communication for everyone.” Indeed, whereas Internet penetration in 2009 totals nearly 75 percent in North America and 50 percent in Europe, the figure is less than 7 percent in Africa. Nearly half of the world’s 1.73 billion or so Internet users are of a North American or European origin and just 65 million are Africans, according to the uppermost estimates.
Alongside these international imbalances in Internet access and usage, a call was made at the World Summit on the Information Society (Geneva 2003, Tunis 2005) for Internet governance to be less dominated by the United States. The 1990s were a period of major upheaval in the organization of the Internet and growing complexity in the players and parties involved; this included the creation of the Internet Society in 1992 and the creation of the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994. By expanding, the Internet infrastructure diversified and gradually saw a multidivision organizational structure take shape. The notion of governance has been enriched due to a range of factors, including the creation of the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) by the United States in October 1998 to handle issues relating to the management of domain names, the creation of the Working Group on Internet Governance at the WSIS in Tunis (November 1995), and then the Internet Governance Forum, the World Human Development Report in 2001 by the United Nations Development Programme, the World Information Technology Program in 2003, and debates on IPv6 (a new generation of Internet connectivity that extends addressing possibilities to near-unlimited proportions). Issues include such diverse questions as multilingualism, domain names, the use of free software, values and ethics, and freedom of opinion and speech—all global challenges in the twenty-first century. Obtaining access to the Internet on a nondiscriminatory basis fosters everyone’s fundamental right to communicate, thus enabling a move from a mere “information society” to a democratic society in which access to knowledge and communication are universal.
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