The Internet is a network connecting numerous computers and local networks so that each connected computer can, in theory, send information to and receive information from every other connected computer. The term “Internet” refers to the physical infrastructure—the computers and transmission lines and facilities—and to the communications protocols that make this worldwide interconnection possible. This infrastructure supports a variety of types of information exchange: cloud computing, email and instant messaging, P2P networks, VPNs, the World Wide Web, and a long list of obsolete information exchange technologies from Gopher to Usenet. The term “Internet” is often used, however, to refer to these information exchange technologies, and especially to the World Wide Web (Wagner 1999).
The Internet's ancestry is usually traced to ARPANET, a computer network established by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA, thus the name) of the U.S. Department of Defense. ARPANET's humble beginning, in 1969, was as a network of four computers at the University of California at Los Angeles, the Stanford Research Institute, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah (Kristula 2001). ARPANET thrived; two years later, in 1971, it connected two dozen computers at 15 sites, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. Ten years later, by 1981, ARPANET connected over 200 host systems. The first email program was created in 1972, and in 1978 the first mass emailed commercial message was sent over ARPANET, although the term “spam” was not in use at the time. In 1983, an important technological milestone was achieved, as ARPANET switched to TCP/IP networking protocols; inasmuch as the Internet can be said to have originated at any particular moment, the switch to TCP/IP probably marks that moment. In the same year, ARPANET's military functions were moved to MILNET, and seven years later, in 1990, ARPANET ceased to exist (Computer History Museum 2006).
The demise of ARPANET did not mean the end of the Internet, nor did it mean that the computers formerly connected to ARPANET ceased to be connected to each other. New networks had grown up; among the most historically important of these were NSFNet, established in the 1980s by the National Science Foundation; USENET, or Unix User Network; and BITNET, a multi-university network originating at the City University of New York, and whose acronym was variously explained as standing for “Because It's Time Network” and “Because It's There Network.” These networks and many others were linked to each other, making it possible for any computer connected to any one of the networks to communicate, via a sometimes tortuous route, with any computer connected to any of the others. The Internet spread beyond universities, government, and businesses and into private homes during the 1980s with the growth of proprietary networks such as Compuserve, Prodigy, and America Online. In 1989, a company called The World became the first to offer dial-up Internet access to the public.
In 1989 and 1990, Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau created a system they called ENQUIRE in order to find documents more quickly on computers at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Switzerland. In 1990 and 1991, Berners-Lee expanded ENQUIRE into the storage, search, and retrieval tools essential to the operation of the World Wide Web, and created both the first Web page and the first Web browser. The World Wide Web was made accessible to the world, thus living up to its name, in 1992 (Kristula 2001).
In 1988, Jarkko Oikarinen, a Finnish student, had created the first Internet Relay Chat (IRC) program, and various Web browsers appeared during the early 1990s. The early Internet required a degree of technical sophistication to navigate, however; the dramatic expansion of the Internet became possible after Netscape introduced its browser, Netscape Navigator, in 1994, followed by Microsoft's Internet Explorer in 1995 (Cusumano & Yoffe 2000, 5–12). By October of 1993, the number of World Wide Web servers had increased from Berners-Lee's original one to over 200 (CERN 2008). By June of 1994 that number had increased more than tenfold, to 2,738, and it leaped yet another order of magnitude, to 23,500, by June of 1995, and yet again, to 252,000, by June of 1996. As the number of servers and the number of IP addresses per machine increase, the difficulty of making an accurate count increases as well. Growth seemed to level off a bit by the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, with 620 million sites (with tens or hundreds of billions of pages) by September 2012 (Netcraft 2012).
The growth of the Internet has raised legal issues at almost every stage. The Internet's potential as a vehicle for the infringement of intellectual property rights, especially copyrights, has led to a number of legislative adjustments to copyright laws in the United States and in other countries. The ease with which the Internet provides access to information has led to attempts to censor Internet content and restrict access. The battle for dominance in the market for Internet browsers led to antitrust litigation against Microsoft. The Internet has been used as a vehicle for scams and frauds. And Internet users and the Internet itself have come under repeated attack from viruses, worms, and hackers since the first major Internet worm attack in 1988. The Internet has become an accepted part of life for a large part of the world's population, but society and the legal system are still digesting its implications.
See also: Censorship; Copyright; File-Sharing; Hacking; Microsoft Antitrust Litigation; Net Neutrality; Spam; Virus; Web Browser; World Wide Web
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