40 years of the internet

As the internet hits 40, we trace its early origins, look at its anarchic development and consider where it might be going in the future.

"They tended to look down on each other the hobbyists saw the academics as elitists, while the professionals looked down on the hobbyists and trivial, with no real understanding there was a sense of division."

The NGO networks then were created for specific purposes and in the early days were basic bulletin board services where people could connect and leave messages which could be read by others like very basic web forums.

Green links

By 1982, said Willets, there was InterDoc, a basic bulletin board system. In 1985, peace activists in California created PeaceNet, while in the UK, it was the environmentally-flavoured GreenNET.

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As Willetts explained, it was only when one of the founders of PeaceNET coincidentally found out about GreenNET, and realised that they were run on the same systems were they connected up.

This was done by actually flying to London, and manually placing all the PeaceNET system software on GreenNET's computers and enabled the two to connect up. This broke ground as it was the first transatlantic digital network.

"It was the NGOs that drove public access and drove connectivity to each other," Willets believes. "They saw it as politically empowering to enable peripheral communities to connect- they were ideological committed to connectivity."

Another example of where the NGOs had a technological lead was in email, as they were using bulk email lists as a great way of sending out information to multiple people at once, which the universities weren't doing.

Eventually by 1990, a body called the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) was formed. This was dedicated to linking the more technologically-advanced centres that had sprung up round the world, such as in the US, UK, Sweden, Canada, Brazil, Australia and Nicaragua.

Willetts highlights the crucial impact of the 1992 Earth Summit. Here the NGOs were commissioned to place documents online and made them available for delegates to use. "People were astonished by the connectivity," Willets said, "They'd never seen anything like it before."

Two attendees who were clearly influenced by this were Bill Clinton and Al Gore who were among the first politicians to see the possibilities that the internet represented. Al Gore infamously took this too far though when he claimed that he, "took the initiative in creating the internet".

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