Taming the Wild West

No one can say for sure when exactly the Internet was "born." The online ethos fixes the decisive date as September 2, 1969 - i.e., 35 years ago tomorrow. On that date, two students who had been friends since their high school days, Vinton Cerf and Steven Crocker, linked together two computers into a single network. This linkup should not be belittled.

William Mitchell describes in his book "City of Bits" how, before the era of networks, computers were like large mountains and occasionally a disk was able to relay information between them. The concept of a network brought dizzying change to the world of computers and is reminiscent of the changes in the Wild West prompted by the arrival of the railroad tracks. The minute the tracks entered the picture, the West ceased to be wild and isolated; the same is true of the world of computers.

It's amusing to recall that the first two computers hooked up in a network were actually microcomputers with 12 kilobytes of memory (as opposed to 256 megabytes of memory in today's computers). The bandwidth of the cable that connected them was 50 kilobytes per second (as opposed to 56,000 kilobytes per second in a regular connection or 1.5 megabytes in today's commonly used broadband connections). In one of the first trials to enter the small network, around six weeks after the computers were linked, the word "Login" was typed. As the letter "g" was typed in, the network crashed. Later on, of course, there were better days.

And the question still remains: does the connection set up by Cerf and Crocker mark the "birth" of the Internet? It's unclear. There are those who argue that the Internet started 11 years earlier when researchers at Bell Labs created the modem. Others argue the Internet was born in 1961, with the publication of Leonard Kleinrock's article on packet switching, the technological basis underpinning the Internet that enabled data transfer. To each, his own timetable.

Growing up fast

Until not long ago the Internet was text-based only, shockingly slow, complicated and truthfully speaking, quite boring. In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee, a physicist at the Swiss-based CERN Institute, developed a system that made it possible to connect different contents stored on different computers (a link). This marked the birth of the World Wide Web (as opposed to the Internet, which is the entire network). It was reborn in 1990 when Berners-Lee presented the first browser program and thereby made it possible to move among different sites as if they were stores in a giant mall.

The Cern Institute begged Berners-Lee to take out a patent on his invention. He refused and he was not the only one. Essentially, the entire technological infrastructure enabling the existing of the network is based on inventions of people who, for various reasons, did not take out patents on their inventions. The Internet protocol (IP/TCP), the e-mail system, the Link, the HTML language for building Web sites and others, were all invented by people who thought that mankind would benefit if their invention were available to all. When you ask them today if in retrospect they regret not getting a patent for their innovations, they answer with a vehement no, terrified over the possibility that any entity could today have ownership of their inventions.

After the browser came out, things started to move quickly. In 1992, the term "surfing the Internet" was coined by Jean Armor Polly, author of the Net-Mom guide to Web sites recommended for children. The White House Internet site came online in 1993, Netscape was founded in 1994 and that same year, it presented the first commercial browser. Suddenly all understood that something big was developing right in front of their eyes. Even Bill Gates woke up and instructed his people to develop a browser and integrated it into his operating system, a decision that cost Microsoft a long and expensive anti-trust suit.

Beating the system

If lately you have felt that the Internet has become a crowded place, there is a reason for that. In December 1995, 16 million people were surfing the Net. As of July 2004, around 800 million people are plying the Internet.

Israel, where Internet service providers began operating in the mid-1990s, has become one of the biggest Internet consumers in the world relative to its population size. One of the factors that prompted the rush of new users to log on to the Internet is the high-speed Internet. According to Communications Ministry data, in 2000, when trials of high-speed Internet were conducted, there were approximately 2,000 broadband surfers in Israel.

By 2001, there were already 38,000 broadband surfers. In 2002, Bezeq and the cable companies started dropping their prices for high-speed Internet access. The result: in July of this year, there were 860,000 Internet surfers with a broadband connection.

Let there be no doubt: Israeli surfers do not connect to broadband Internet services because they want to read Nietzsche's writings at the speed of light. They want to use file-swapping services that enable quick downloading of music and video files containing songs and films. The Internet service providers do not hide the fact that most data transfer on their communications lines are linked to file swapping programs such as Kazaa and others. It seems that any place where you can beat the system and not be punished, you'll find at least 860,000 Israelis.

A rosy-black future

How many sites are there on the Internet? How big is it? It's hard to know. As of December 2003, the Google search engine was able to count 4,285,199,774 existing pages on the Internet and even Google's executives do not claim that their smart search engine scans the entire network. Based on estimates, there are no less than 43 billion Web sites and their number continues to grow.

That is apparently why many are attempting to transfer the somewhat chaotic Internet into something friendlier. One interesting project in this field is the "semantic web" technology that enables Internet pages to adapt themselves to us and to our needs. The semantic network will transform the millions of sites now functioning separately into a giant database that is capable, like a huge oracle, of providing answers to every question, a solution for every problem and a response to any situation.

But one needn't get confused and think that only a rosy future lies around the corner. Junk mail continues to flood mailboxes and is even increasing; viruses and worms attack sites and occasionally make them inaccessible for long periods. The existential question, "Who is managing the Internet?" has yet to be answered. The U.S. government, which in October 1998 transferred control over the network infrastructure to an independent known as ICANN, still oversees its operations and reserves the right to veto its decisions. There is no shortage of countries that detest the status quo and are attempting to take this privilege out of American hands via a long and exhausting series of discussions being conducted at UN institutions. It can only be hoped that governments and politicians will not manage the Internet, because then the 70th birthday of the Internet will be a very sad day.