How was the internet created?

A system known as ARPANET inspired the World Wide Web, and with it came issues that still exist in today's digital age.

How was the internet created?
Scripps News

It was 30 years ago this week in April 1993 that the World Wide Web came into the public domain, making it easier for millions of people to browse online. And although it wasn't nearly as worldly as the internet is today, it was a huge breakthrough.

The first browser, originally called Mesh, was simplistic, but it was built on years of technological work done by computer scientists. Working with the government, they had cracked the code for computer communications, creating the first and most basic form of the internet, known back then as the ARPANET. The government communication system became the backbone of the digital world seen today. 

The ARPANET was created in the late 1960s after the U.S. Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network — which the system was named after — funded a project by computer scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles. Their original vision was simple: They wanted to be able to connect any two computers in a way that would allow them to easily share resources and information from one agency to another.

They managed to do that after two nodes — the hardware that helped connect computers within a communication network — were successfully installed. One was placed at UCLA itself and the other at Stanford University, about 350 miles away. These nodes were connected by a high-speed line.

"That high speed line was the first piece of the internet backbone, and it was running at the blazing speed of 50,000 bits per second," said Leonard Kleinrock, a computer scientist and professor at UCLA. "Now we — you and I — wouldn't pay a nickel for 50,000 bits per second access line right now, but in those days, it was high speed."

Kleinrock is one of three people who were present when they first successfully tested the ARPANET system late one night in October, 1969.

"Just to get some communications going, we had a telephone link from Charlie to Bill so they could talk to each other," Kleinrock said. "So, Charlie, typed the L and said, 'Bill, did you get the L?' Bill said, 'Yep. Got the L,' and the L printed on Charlie's screen. Charlie said, 'You get the O?' 'Got the O.' Prints the O. 'Get the G?' Crash."

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In their attempt to login to the system at Stanford, which back then was as simple as typing in the word "login," the computer scientists first failed, but they still ended up sending the first ever message across the line.

"What was the first message ever on the ARPANET, the Internet? The answer was lo, as in lo and behold," Kleinrock said. "Now, you have to understand that message was the most powerful, most succinct, most prophetic message we could have come up with. But it was an accident."

Kleinrock, his graduate students and others involved in the mission to connect computers found success in their second attempt that night.

"We successfully appeared to be a local user on the remote machine, able to use all its resources," Kleinrock said. "That was the functionality we were trying to prove."

And that was the start of the communication system known as the internet today.

In the years following, ARPANET slowly but surely grew, with the node networks expanding across the country. It also helped other communication systems grow, like electronic mail — or email — which was created in 1971.

By 1973, ARPANET had grown to include more than 30 locations, including government offices and universities. The expanse was impressive too, with node-connected locations including the islands of Hawaii and global locations like Norway and the U.K. More and more advancements in technology also helped it spread.

While it may seem like really simplistic technology in retrospect, it had uses that surprised even Kleinrock himself. Take, for example, the use of list servers, also known as listservs. This is software used to run group email discussion lists, and for Kleinrock's graduate students, listservs became an early form of social networking. He said they shared things from cooking recipes to even mountain climbing tips.

"This network suddenly evolved into basically a communications medium, an interactive medium for people to share ideas, to form groups spontaneously, and it was very active in those early days," he said. "That was a complete surprise to me."

Slowly, functionality went even further, and users could play games like chess with others across the ARPANET. As its uses grew, so did the system itself. By 1985, domains came into existence, making it even easier to share information and communicate online. 

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As time passed, the same motivation to create a sort of dynamic resource sharing network like ARPANET also led British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee to ultimately establish the World Wide Web in 1989. The ARPANET was shut down that same year and ultimately decommissioned by 1990 as computer users transitioned to the World Wide Web.

With the increased accessibility and connectivity, there also came things that weren't wanted or foreseen. Take, for example, spam messages. Although it wasn't quite as widespread as today, spam already existed back then.

The first mass spam message was an email from immigration attorneys advertising their services. Dated April 12, 1994, it advertised their ability to help immigrants wanting to live and work in the U.S. get green cards. 

Though it may seem innocuous compared to the kinds of spam messages many receive today, it wasn't taken well by experts like Kleinrock, who reached out to the lawyers with requests to cease and desist their use of the internet for that.

"We sent so much email back to them that we took down their server accidentally, and so it was an unintended consequence of the first spam message. We created the first service attack, and it took them down ... but the cat was out of the bag," Kleinrock said. "The commercial world saw that and said, 'Oh, my goodness. This internet is a very inexpensive mechanism for reaching millions of consumers and trying to sell them on services.' And so while the dark side of the network had been percolating in the background for a while, this basically brought forth all the bad sides of the internet."

Some of those same concerns over the so called "bad sides" of the internet that were emerging as the web got commercialized — things like spam, scams, hackers and more — eventually led to legislation too, like the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which included Section 230.

Section 230 is a provision that provides immunity to online platforms that host and moderate content. The idea was that providers of the internet and its platforms should not be liable or punished for what individuals publish on the web.

It was once seen as a necessary piece of legislation, but now many cyber experts argue it gives too much immunity to tech giants like Google, Facebook, YouTube and others whose algorithms control a lot of what someone sees online.

"When we see social networks basically providing false information, dangerous information, deep lack of privacy — who else can, in fact, control that if not the carrier? Who sees what's going on? Who notices the collection of bad and good data, bad and good information, and is in a position, in fact, to censor it?" Kleinrock said.