The Internet is a vast worldwide conglomeration of linked computer networks. Its roots lie in the mid-twentieth century, with a number of projects by the United States government and the private sector, most notable of which was the computer network created by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the Department of Defense (DOD) in 1969. Until the early 1990s, the Internet remained largely the province of specialists, including defense personnel and scientists. The creation of browsers, or software that provided a convenient graphical interface between user and machine, revolutionized the medium, and spawned rapid economic growth throughout the 1990s. In addition to the World Wide Web and e-mail, the parts of the Internet most familiar to casual users, the Internet

A U.S. college student is arrested by FBI agents in Los Angeles, California, for the perpetration of an Internet hoax in 2000, in which he made over $241,000 and lost a Southern California high-tech company billions of dollars in market value. ©AFP/CORBIS.
A U.S. college student is arrested by FBI agents in Los Angeles, California, for the perpetration of an Internet hoax in 2000, in which he made over $241,000 and lost a Southern California high-tech company billions of dollars in market value. ©

contains a frontier that offers both great promise and great challenges to law and security.

Birth of the Internet

The basis of the Internet is the network, a group of computers linked by communication lines. The distant ancestors of today's networks were highly specialized systems used either by DOD, or by private companies (for example, airlines, which tracked reservations on the SABRE system) during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The development of semiconductor technology in the 1960s enabled the growth of computer activity in general, and networking in particular. Universities and research centers participated in timesharing, whereby multiple users accessed the same system.

ARPANET, which connected time-sharing facilities at research centers, is generally regarded as the first true computer network. It provided a testing-ground for technologies that are still used today: simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP), the system that makes e-mail possible, and file transfer protocol (FTP), for transmitting large messages. To maximize effectiveness, ARPANET broke messages into small pieces, or packets, that could easily be transmitted and reassembled. The technique, known as packet switching, enhanced communication between computers.

The 1970s: TCP/IP. During the 1970s, ARPA (now known as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA) continued its efforts to connect its users, but it eventually ran into a dead-end posed by the primitive systems of networking used at the time. Faced with this roadblock, DARPA turned to two computer scientists, Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, who developed a design that revolutionized networks.

This was the transmission control protocol (TCP), which, coupled with the related Internet Protocol (IP), provided a mechanism for addressing messages and routing them to their destinations using an open architecture that connected standardized networks. In 1980, DOD adopted TCP/IP as its standard, and required all participants to adopt the protocol as of January 1, 1983. Some observers regard this event as the true birth of the Internet.

The 1980s: civilian agencies get involved. The 1980s saw use of computer networks expand to include civilian agencies. Among these was the National Science Foundation (NSF), which worked with five supercomputing centers spread across the country to create NSFNET, a "backbone" system intended to connect the entire nation. NSF succeeded in linking small local and regional networks to NSFNET. Other civilian participants in computer networks, which began to increasingly overlap with one another, included the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as well as a number of private companies.

Also during this period, several independent consortiums took on themselves the task of organizing and policing the rapidly growing Internet. Among these were the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Internet Society, both of which are concerned with Internet standards, as well as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). The latter controls policy with regard to the assignment of domain names, including top-level domains such as .com for commercial enterprises, .gov for government offices, .edu for schools, and so on.

The Internet Explosion

The mid-1980s saw the birth of the first commercial computer networks, including Prodigy, Compuserve, and Quantum Computer Services. The first two would eventually recede in significance as larger companies took over the Internet, but the third—founded in 1985 and renamed America Online (AOL) in 1989—would eventually merge with publishing and entertainment conglomerate Time Warner to control a wide span of media. All of that lay far in the future, however, during the mid-1980s, as the few commercial participants developed their first subscriber bases and linked up to NSFNET through the Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX).

A number of technological innovations in the 1980s and early 1990s portended the explosive growth of the Internet that would take place in the next decade. Among these was the development of the personal computer or PC, as well as local area networks (LANs), which linked computers within a single business or location. NSFNET, working with the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, sponsored the first commercial use of e-mail on the Internet. Then, in 1993, new legislation at the federal level permitted the full opening of the NSFNET to commercial users.

The result was much like the opening of lands in the western United States to homesteaders, only the "land" in this case existed in virtual or cyberspace, and instead of wagons, the new settlers used browsers. The first important browser was Mosaic, developed at the University of Illinois using standards created at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) by Tim Berners-Lee. Thus was born the World Wide Web, which uses hypertext transfer protocol, or HTTP. In this environment, Mosaic—known as Netscape Navigator after the formation of the Netscape Communications Corporation in 1994—and Microsoft's competing Internet Explorer would prove the most useful navigating tools.

Users of the Internet today can still travel to regions beyond the World Wide Web, where they can see what the Internet was like prior to 1993. The most significant surviving portion of this older section is Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board system containing some 14,000 forums or newsgroups. In addition to the Web and Usenet, the Internet includes e-mail (electronic mail), FTP sites (used for transferring pictures and other large files), instant messaging, and other components. At the edges of the Internet are proprietary services such as those accessible only to AOL users, as well as other pay sites. Additionally, company and government intranets (private networks accessible only through a password) lie beyond the periphery of the Internet, though a browser may be used to access both.

By 1988, the size of the Internet was doubling every year, and the advent of browsers made possible an enormous consumer influx. The mid-to late 1990s saw the formation of thousands of Internet service providers (ISPs), through which users gained access to the Internet in exchange for a monthly fee. As competition increased, fees decreased, forcing consolidation of providers. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, major companies such as AOL, AT&T, and Earthlink, along with a few second-tier ISPs, controlled most of the market.

The explosive growth of the Internet itself, coupled with the expanded opportunities for commerce it provided, fueled one of the greatest periods of economic growth in U.S. history, from 1996 to 2000. The economic downturn that began in April, 2000, and continued throughout the early 2000s, however, served as an indicator that the Internet—while it had certainly transformed communications—would not solve all problems.

There were several problems associated with the Internet itself, and simplest among these were the technological challenges involved in moving ever larger amounts of data. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, it became possible to access video and complex graphics using powerful data streams, and computer scientists envisioned technology that would make possible the use of high-resolution video or multiple streams on networks capable of processing 100 gigabits of data a second. To expand the number of available addresses, hitherto limited by the 32-bit IP address standard, the Internet Engineering Task Force in 1998 approved a new 128-bit standard. This made possible so many addresses that every electronic device in the world could have its own unique location in an ever-expanding Internet.

Less simple were some of the challenges associated with human activities. There were cybercrimes, such as hacking or the dissemination of viruses, either of which could be used simply as a form of information-age vandalism, or for extortion. Hacking of financial service sites also offered the opportunity to commit robbery without picking locks, and for this reason many companies adopted secure, encrypted sites. (The latter were designated by the prefix https://, in contrast to the ordinary http://. )

Just as the Internet could be used for education, commerce, and a host of other purposes, it also provided a forum for activities that tested the limits of free speech; extremist political parties and hate groups could operate a Web site. On the other hand, use of the Web to distribute drugs, weapons, or child pornography carried stiff penalties. At the same time, government attempts to restrict or control aspects of the Internet raised concerns over the abrogation of First Amendment rights. The Internet itself was worldwide, beyond the reach of even the U.S. Constitution or any law, and although China's totalitarian regime attempted to restrict citizens' access to it, the network continued to work its way deeper and deeper into the fabric of modern life.



Gillies, James, and R. Cailliau. How the Web Was Born: The Story of the World Wide Web. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hafner, Katie, and Matthew Lyon. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Young, Gray, ed. The Internet. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1998.


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. < > (April 14, 2003).

Internet Society. < > (April 14, 2003).

Webopedia: Online Dictionary for Computer and Internet Terms. < > (April 14, 2003).


Computer Hackers
Computer Software Security
Computer Virus
DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)
Internet: Dynamic and Static Addresses
Internet Spam and Fraud
Internet Spider
Internet Surveillance
Internet Tracking and Tracing
NSF (National Science Foundation)

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:


Internet forum