Twenty years ago today, somebody flipped a switch and opened the floodgates. On April 30, 1995, the last federally funded portion of the Internet shut down, turning it into a free-enterprise operation.
It was just one major breakthrough of 1995, the year the Internet achieved lift-off. Amazon, eBay, craigslist, and Match.com all went live that year, while Microsoft rolled out its first Internet Explorer browser. In 1995, about 16 million people were online, less than half a percent of the human race. Just five years later, 5 percent of the world had logged on. Today, it’s 3 billion of us — 40 percent of the planet. Probably no other technology has caught on so fast, built so many new businesses, or demolished so many old ones.
And according to four members of the Internet Society’s Hall of Fame, we’ve hardly seen anything yet.
For Nii Quaynor, cofounder of the African Network Operators Group, the networked life has barely begun. When I visited Quaynor in Accra, Ghana, 14 years ago, orbiting satellites provided dead-slow Internet access. Today, with Quaynor’s assistance, five undersea fiber cables link the country to Europe and Asia. About 4 million of the country’s 20 million citizens get 3G mobile data service.
“We do have broadband, perhaps not at the speed that everybody wants,” said Quaynor, once an engineer at Massachusetts’ defunct Digital Equipment Corp. But for many Ghanaians these days, “affordability is the question,” Quaynor said. And there’s still an access problem, since rural Ghana lacks a proper network of fiber cables.
Western Massachusetts had the same problem until recently, when a federally funded Internet backbone was lit up. Now the Ghanaian government is doing the same. In a decade, Quaynor said, “the whole country will be connected by that time with 4G, even 5G.” The same thing’s happening throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America, helping to get the remaining 60 percent of the planet online and driving us toward a totally networked future.
And I mean totally. Robert Metcalfe, co-inventor of the Ethernet data networking standard, is prepping for the “Internet of things,” in which billions of ordinary objects can be controlled online.
“It’s beginning to roll out with laughable things like Bluetooth toothbrushes,” snarked Metcalfe, but next come cars, houses, and nearly everything else.
Metcalfe began warning about Internet security in 1973. His griping didn’t do much good, and he expects a replay with the Internet of things. Imagine a criminal using a hacked home thermostat to leapfrog into the electrical grid and take it down. Still, Metcalfe says, that’s no reason to hesitate.
“There’s too much upside to worry about waiting until security gets solved,” Metcalfe said, “because security will never get solved.”
David Farber, who worked with the National Science Foundation to build the early Internet, is much less optimistic.
“I worry a lot about the Internet of things,” said Farber, former chief technologist of the Federal Communications Commission. “At some point, we’re going to say this is too insecure for us to trust.” He suggests unplugging critical functions such as municipal water, gas, and electric systems from the Internet altogether, before it’s too late.
Farber also reviles the FCC’s decision to regulate the Internet like a public utility.
“My God, what have we done?” he said. Farber predicted that big, successful companies will use the regulations to box out innovative upstarts.
“It could slow things down tremendously,” he said. “I’ve served at the FCC. I know what it’s like.”
But for undiluted pessimism, you can’t top Richard Stallman, co-inventor of the GNU/Linux operating system and recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” Stallman said that governments around the world are tightening their grip on all communications networks, either to censor “subversive” information or to spy on real or imagined criminals and terrorists.
“A portable phone is Stalin’s dream,” said Stallman, because they constantly reveal the user’s location. So he refuses to use a cellphone, smart or dumb. But even the revelations of American surveillance whistleblower Edward Snowden haven’t frightened most of us offline. The US government keeps spying on our phones, and most of us keep shrugging.
“This is a fight for freedom,” Stallman said, “and things don’t look good.”
Yes, the future’s going to be awful. The past 20 years gave us virus-laden e-mails, online identity theft, and pushbutton porn. But we also got Google and Wikipedia and smartphones and e-books. So here’s hoping the next 20 years are just as bad.
|1989||--||AOL launches its Internet Messenger chat service|
|1990||--||Tim Berners-Lee develops the first web browser, WorldWideWeb|
|1993||--||CERN (European Center for Nuclear Research) places its World Wide Web technology in the public domain|
|1994||11||The White House goes online; Yahoo is created by Stanford University graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo|
|1995||16||Amazon, craigslist, Match.com, and eBay launch; Netscape goes public; Microsoft releases first version of Internet Explorer|
|1997||70||Netflix launches as a company that sends DVDs through the mail|
|1998||147||AOL launches AOL 4.0; membership doubled to 16 million|
|2000||361||40 million Americans say that have purchased a product online|
|2003||719||Apple launches iTunes Music Store; Skype launches; WordPress blog publishing system is created|
|2004||817||Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg launches thefacebook.com; Google goes public|
|2005||1,018||Broadband connections surpass dial-up connections; YouTube is founded|
|2007||1,319||Apple releases first iPhone|
|2010||1,971||Pinterest and Instagram launch; Wikileaks releases US diplomatic cables|
|2011||2,267||LinkedIn reaches 100 million users, goes public|
|2012||2,497||Facebook reaches 1 billion monthly active users|
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.