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50 Years of Internet

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From the first message, to roughly four billion Internet users worldwide, it has come a long way: a retrospective review of 50 years of Internet – and a brief preview.

Only a few months after astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in Apollo 11 were the first humans to land on the moon, student Charles S. Kline of the University of California at Los Angeles sent a message with the text “Login” from one computer to another, located 500 kilometers to the north at Stanford Research Institute – the Internet was born. “We knew that we were developing an important new technology which was expected to be useful to a subset of the population. But we had no idea how significant the event really was”, Kline’s boss, Leonard Kleinrock reported later.
The reason is that prior to this event, this kind of exchange of information had only been possible between structurally identical computers with the same operating system. The network of the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPANET), the precursor to the Internet, suddenly enabled the connection of all computers – even across great distances. “Beginning with this short message, the Internet can look back on an unprecedented triumph”, recounts Armin Grunwald, Head of the Office of Technology Assessment at the German Bundestag (TAB). “Nobody has set foot on the moon since 1972 whereas the Internet is used by roughly four billion people every day.”

Initial research purpose

Initially, the success story of the Internet was anything but a linear path. From the first transmitted message to today’s Internet with the well-known browsers, apps and functions, it has come a long way – also in terms of time. One of the reasons was the fact that the original purpose of the Internet was the facilitation and simplification of communication between research institutions worldwide. Even the United States Department of Defense was involved during the first decades; it was hoping for a network that would be able to withstand large-scale outages following an enemy attack. The scientists who were tasked with furthering the development of the Internet in subsequent years were unsuccessful in eliminating a substantial security defect. To this day, the protocol does not contain any built-in security functions. “In practice, it is expected that everyone will trust everyone else on the Internet”, Grant Blank of the British Oxford Internet Institute said to the magazine “New Scientist”.

Caution: Internet

The trust of consumers, however, took a hit in the decades that followed. As a result of the rapidly growing numbers of users, not only commercial interests, but also crime and abuse, were on the rise. Even before 1989, when the World Wide Web and – a few years later – the first browsers began to considerably simplify the use of the Internet, the first computer viruses had already begun to circulate. And the more users went online in the years that followed – there were already 500 million in 2002 – the more viruses, worms, hacker attacks and misuse of data emerged.
“Today, of course, we are much more aware of the downsides of the Internet”, explains Grunwald of TAB. In the future, the potential for danger will lie within the power positions of tech giants such as Google®, Facebook® and Amazon® that own massive amounts of user data: “We depend on these companies’ abilities to satisfy their responsibilities regarding data security, however, we have already been disappointed in the past. National, but also European, solutions are crucial.” In addition, the relocation of entire industry sectors into the digital realm carries risks, states Grunwald: “Even today, there are targeted attempts of attacks on important institutions and supply networks. You really don’t want to imagine in detail what will happen if the energy supply were to collapse due to, for instance, a hacker attack.”
On the other hand, says Grunwald, the dangers of the Internet should not blind us to all the advantages which the Internet affords people and which have long been taken for granted: “The Internet is the dream of limitless freedom. People across the globe are connected and have access to knowledge and education. The world will continue to consolidate and become smaller.” Indeed, according to predictions by different sources, more than 100 million additional people will have access to the Internet by 2021. Ever cheaper technologies and the advancing distribution of networks will strengthen this trend in the near future. Grunwald: “This dream of the world as a global village is no longer a mere Utopia. It is now up to us whether, and how, we will further realize the dream.”

Internet as a Human Right?

More than half of the world’s population uses the Internet – tendency rising. The standard of living in many countries and regions depends on it to a large extent. “Internet access is not a luxury but a simple human right. Everyone should have uncontrolled and uncensored access to this global medium”, comments Dr. Merten Reglitz, philosopher and ethicist at the University of Birmingham, in a current study. His team investigated whether Internet access represented an essential necessity for humanity. According to Reglitz, Internet access is also a prerequisite for the ability to safeguard other human rights such as the freedom of speech, the freedom of information and the freedom of assembly.