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The Internet is a vast global system of interconnected technical networks made up of heterogeneous information and communication technologies. It is also a social and economic assemblage that allows diverse forms of communication, creativity, and cultural exchange at a scope and scale unknown before the late twentieth century.
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The terms Internet and net are often used when discussing the social implications of new information technologies, such as the creation of new communal bonds across great distances or new forms of wealth and inequality. Such a usage is imprecise: The Internet is distinct from the applications and technologies that are built upon it, such as e-mail, the World Wide Web, online gaming, filesharing networks, and e-commerce and e-governance initiatives. There are also many networks that are or were once distinct from the Internet, such as mobile telephone networks and electronic financial networks.
Stated more precisely, the Internet is an infrastructural substrate that possesses innovative social, cultural, and economic features allowing creativity (or innovation) based on openness and a particular standardization process. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for many of the social and cultural implications often attributed to it. Understanding the particularity of the Internet can be key to differentiating its implications and potential impact on society from the impacts of “information technology” and computers more generally.
History and Structure of the Internet
The Internet developed through military, university, corporate, and amateur user innovations occurring more or less constantly beginning in the late 1960s. Despite its complexity, it is unlike familiar complex technical objects—for example, a jumbo jetliner—that are designed, tested, and refined by a strict hierarchy of experts who attempt to possess a complete overview of the object and its final state. By contrast, the Internet has been subject to innovation, experimentation, and refinement by a much less well-defined collective of diverse users with wide-ranging goals and interests.
In 1968 the Internet was known as the ARPAnet, named for its principal funding agency, the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It was a small but extensive research project organized by the Information Processing Techniques Office at ARPA that focused on advanced concepts in computing, specifically graphics, time-sharing, and networking. The primary goal of the network was to allow separate administratively bounded resources (computers and software at particular geographical sites) to be shared across those boundaries, without forcing standardization across all of them. The participants were primarily university researchers in computer and engineering departments. Separate experiments in networking, both corporate and academic, were also under way during this period, such as the creation of “Ethernet” by Robert Metcalfe at Xerox PARC and the X.25 network protocols standardized by the International Telecommunications Union.
By 1978 the ARPAnet had grown to encompass dozens of universities and military research sites in the United States. At this point the project leaders at ARPA recognized a need for a specific kind of standardization to keep the network feasible, namely a common operating system and networking software that could run on all of the diverse hardware connected to the network. Based on its widespread adoption in the 1970s, the UNIX operating system was chosen by ARPA as one official platform for the Internet. UNIX was known for its portability (ability to be installed on different kinds of hardware) and extensibility (ease with which new components could be added to the core system). Bill Joy (who later cofounded Sun Microsystems) is credited with the first widespread implementation of the Internet Protocol (IP) software in a UNIX operating system, a version known as Berkeley Systems Distribution (BSD).
The Internet officially began (in name and in practice) in 1983, the date set by an ad hoc group of engineers known as the Network Working Group (NWG) as the deadline for all connected computers to begin using the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) protocols. These protocols were originally designed in 1973 and consistently improved over the ensuing ten years, but only in 1983 did they become the protocols that would define the Internet. At roughly the same time, ARPA and the Department of Defense split the existing ARPAnet in two, keeping “Milnet” for sensitive military use and leaving ARPAnet for research purposes and for civilian uses.
From 1983 to 1993, in addition to being a research network, the Internet became an underground, subcultural phenomenon, familiar to amateur computer enthusiasts, university students and faculty, and “hackers.” The Internet’s glamour was largely associated with the arcane nature of interaction it demanded—largely text-based, and demanding access to and knowledge of the UNIX operating system. Thus, owners of the more widespread personal computers made by IBM and Apple were largely excluded from the Internet (though a number of other similar networks such as Bulletin Board Services, BITNet, and FidoNET existed for PC users).
A very large number of amateur computer enthusiasts discovered the Internet during this period, either through university courses or through friends, and there are many user-initiated innovations that date to this period, ranging from games (e.g., MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons) to programming and scripting languages (e.g., Perl, created by Larry Wall) to precursors of the World Wide Web (e.g., WAIS, Archie, and Gopher). During this period, the network was overseen and funded by the National Science Foundation, which invested heavily in improving the basic infrastructure of fiberoptic “backbones” in the United States in 1988. The oversight and management of the Internet was commercialized in 1995, with the backing of the presidential administration of Bill Clinton.
In 1993 the World Wide Web (originally designed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland) and the graphical Mosaic Web Browser (created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois) brought the Internet to a much larger audience. Between 1993 and 2000 the “dot-com” boom drove the transformation of the Internet from an underground research phenomena to a nearly ubiquitous and essential technology with far-reaching effects. Commercial investment in infrastructure and in “web presence” saw explosive growth; new modes of interaction and communication (e.g., e-mail, Internet messaging, and mailing lists) proliferated; Uniform Resource Locators (URLs, such as www.britannica.com) became a common (and highly valued) feature of advertisements and corporate identity; and artists, scientists, citizens, and others took up the challenge of both using and understanding the new medium.
Protocols and the Internet Standards Process
The core technical components of the Internet are standardized protocols, not hardware or software, strictly speaking—though obviously it would not have spread so extensively without the innovations in microelectronics, the continual enhancement of telecommunications infrastructures around the globe, and the growth in ownership and use of personal computers over the last twenty years. Protocols make the “inter” in the Internet possible by allowing a huge number of nonoverlapping and incompatible networks to become compatible and to route data across all of them.
The key protocols, known as TCP/IP, were designed in 1973 by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn. Other key protocols, such as the Domain Name System (DNS) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP), came later. These protocols have to be implemented in software (such as in the UNIX operating system described above) to allow computers to interconnect. They are essentially standards with which hardware and software implementations must comply in order for any type of hardware or software to connect to the Internet and communicate with any other hardware and software that does the same. They can best be understood as a kind of technical Esperanto.
The Internet protocols differ from traditional standards because of the unconventional social process by which they are developed, validated, and improved. The Internet protocols are elaborated in a set of openly available documents known as Requests for Comments (RFCs), which are maintained by a loose federation of engineers called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF, the successor to the Network Working Group). The IETF is an organization open to individuals (unlike large standards organizations that typically accept only national or corporate representatives) that distributes RFCs free of charge and encourages members to implement protocols and to improve them based on their experiences and users’ responses. The improved protocol then may be released for further implementation.
This “positive feedback loop” differs from most “consensus-oriented” standardization processes (e.g., those of international organizations such as ISO, the International Organization for Standardization) that seek to achieve a final and complete state before encouraging implementations. The relative ease with which one piece of software can be replaced with another is a key reason for this difference. During the 1970s and 1980s this system served the Internet well, allowing it to develop quickly, according to the needs of its users. By the 1990s, however, the scale of the Internet made innovation a slower and more difficult procedure—a fact that is most clearly demonstrated by the comparatively glacial speed with which the next generation of the Internet protocol (known as IP Version 6) has been implemented.
Ultimately, the IETF style of standardization process has become a common cultural reference point of engineers and expert users of the Internet, and has been applied not only to the Internet, but also to the production of applications and tools that rely on the Internet. The result is a starkly different mode of innovation and sharing that is best exemplified by the growth and success of so-called “free software” or “open-source software.” Many of the core applications that are widely used on the Internet are developed in this fashion (famous examples include the Linux operating system kernel and the Apache Web Server).
Cultural, Social, and Economic Implications of the Internet
As a result of the unusual development process and the nature of the protocols, it has been relatively easy for the Internet to advance around the globe and to connect heterogeneous equipment in diverse settings, wherever there are willing and enthusiastic users with sufficient technical know-how. The major impediment to doing so is the reliability (or mere existence) of preexisting infrastructural components such as working energy and telecommunications infrastructures. Between 1968 and 1993 this expansion was not conducted at a national or state level, but by individuals and organizations who saw local benefit in expanding access to the global network. If a university computer science department could afford to devote some resources to computers dedicated to routing traffic and connections, then all the researchers in a department could join the network without needing permission from any centralized state authority. It was not until the late 1990s that Internet governance became an issue that concerned governments and citizens around the world. In particular, the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has been the locus of fractious dispute, especially in international arenas. ICANN’s narrow role is to assign IP numbers (e.g., 192.168.0.1) and the names they map to (e.g., www.wikipedia.org), but it has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an instrument of U.S. control over the Internet.
With each expansion of the Internet, issues of privacy, security, and organizational (or national) authority have become more pressing. At its outset the Internet protocols sought to prioritize control within administrative boundaries, leaving rules governing use to the local network owners. Such a scheme obviated the need for a central authority that determined global rules about access, public/private boundaries, and priority of use. With the advent of widespread commercial access, however, such local control has been severely diluted, and the possibility for individual mischief (e.g., identity theft, spam, and other privacy violations) has increased with increasing accessibility.
On the one hand, increased commercial access means a decline in local organized authority over parts of the Internet in favor of control of large segments by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications/cable corporations. On the other hand, as the basic infrastructure of the Internet has spread, so have the practices and norms that were developed in concert with the technology—including everything from the proper way to configure a router, to norms of proper etiquette on mailing lists and for e-mail. Applications built on top of the Internet have often adopted such norms and modes of use, and promoted a culture of innovation, of “hacking” (someone who creates new software by employing a series of modifications that exploit or extend existing code or resources, with good or bad connotations depending on the context), and of communal sharing of software, protocols, and tools.
It is thus important to realize that although most users do not experience the Internet directly, the development of the particular forms of innovation and openness that characterize the Internet also characterize the more familiar applications built on top of it, due to the propagation of these norms and modes of engineering. There is often, therefore, a significant difference between innovations that owe their genesis to the Internet and those developed in the personal computer industry, the so-called “proprietary” software industry, and in distinct commercial network infrastructures (e.g., the SABRE system for airline reservations, or the MOST network for credit card transactions). The particularity of the Internet leads to different implications and potential impact on society than the impacts of “information technology” or computers more generally.
Digital Music, Film, and Intellectual Property
One of the most widely discussed and experienced implications of the Internet is the effect on the culture industries, especially music and film. As with previous media (e.g., video and audio cassette recorders), it is the intersection of technology and intellectual property that is responsible for the controversy. Largely due to its “openness,” the Internet creates the possibility for low-cost and extremely broad and fast distribution of cultural materials, from online books to digital music and film. At the same time, it also creates the possibility for broad and fast violation of intellectual property rights—rights that have been strengthened considerably by the copyright act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998).
The result is a cultural battle over the meaning of “sharing” music and movies, and the degree to which such sharing is criminal. The debates have been polarized between a “war on piracy” on the one hand (with widely varying figures concerning the economic losses), and “consumer freedom” on the other—rights to copy, share, and trade purchased music. The cultural implication of this war is a tension among the entertainment industry, the artists and musicians, and the consumers of music and film. Because the openness of the Internet makes it easier than ever for artists to distribute their work, many see a potential for direct remuneration, and cheaper and more immediate access for consumers. The entertainment industry, by contrast, argues that it provides more services and quality—not to mention more funding and capital—and that it creates jobs and contributes to a growing economy. In both cases, the investments are protected primarily by the mechanism of intellectual property law, and are easily diluted by illicit copying and distribution. And yet, it is unclear where to draw a line between legitimate sharing (which might also be a form of marketing) and illegitimate sharing (“piracy,” according to the industry).
The Digital Divide
A key question about the Internet is that of social equity and access. The term digital divide has been used primarily to indicate the differential in individual access to the Internet, or in computer literacy, between rich and poor, or between developed and developing nations. A great deal of research has gone into understanding inequality of access to the Internet, and estimates of both differential access and the rate of the spread of access have varied extremely widely, depending on methodology. It is, however, clear from the statistics that between 1996 and 2005 the rate of growth in usage has been consistently greater than 100 percent in almost all regions of the globe at some times, and in some places it has reached annual growth rates of 500 percent or more. Aside from the conclusion that the growth in access to the Internet has been fantastically rapid, there are few sure facts about differential access.
There are, however, a number of more refined questions that researchers have begun investigating: Is the quantity or rate of growth in access to the Internet larger or smaller than in the case of other media (e.g., television, print, and radio)? Are there significant differences within groups with access (e.g., class, race, or national differences in quality of access)? Does access actually enhance or change a person’s life chances or opportunities?
The implication of a digital divide (whether between nations and regions, or within them) primarily concerns the quality of information and the ability of individuals to use it to better their life chances. In local terms, this can affect development issues broadly (e.g., access to markets and government, democratic deliberation and participation, and access to education and employment opportunities); in global terms, differential access can affect the subjective understandings of issues ranging from religious intolerance to global warming and environmental issues to global geopolitics. Digital divides might also differ based on the political situation—such as in the case of the Chinese government’s attempt to censor access to politicized information, which in turn can affect the fate of cross-border investment and trade.
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