Four decades ago - on September 2, 1969, to be precise -- Leonard Kleinrock and a handful of associates began tests on what was soon to become the Internet. About forty people gathered in Kleinrock's lab at the University of California, Los Angeles to observe two bulky computers fifteen feet apart send test data to each other across a gray cable.
That was the humble beginning of what was originally called the 'Arpanet' network -- a government-supported data network that would use the technology which by then had come to be known as "packet switching."
Soon, the Stanford Research Institute, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah joined UCLA - and the rest, as they say, is history...
In short order, TCP/IP communications protocols, which allowed multiple networks to connect, led to the formation of what then came to be known as the Internet, and shortly thereafter, a unique addressing system, using suffixes like the famous long ago "dotcom" came into widespread use. But the Internet as such really didn't take off until the '90s, when Tim Berners-Lee invented its World Wide Web subset to facilitate linking.
Its relative initial obscurity was key to the success and adoption of the Internet, as experimentation was readily fostered and the ideal of an open network became a reality. But with more than a billion people now online, a few caveats (at least) are in order. First, it's important to remember that the early progenitors of the Net -- and the World Wide Web that followed - were all dedicated to the creation of an open network that would allow for freely exchanged information. This fundamental belief in openness, creativity and innovation led directly to the creation of email, YouTube, Facebook, iPhone and countless other applications that have changed pretty much everything about our lives in the 21st Century.
As the Associated Press recently noted, however, "There's still plenty of room for innovation today, yet the openness fostering it may be eroding. While the Internet is more widely available and faster than ever, artificial barriers threaten to constrict its growth. Call it a mid-life crisis."
There are a number of factors one can point to when playing the blame game -- including the relentless spam and hack attacks that inevitably lead to greater reliance on firewalls and security. (We at MediaChannel can certainly attest to that!) In addition, totalitarian and authoritarian governments -- aided by the very tech companies that foster the innovation driving the Net's rapid development -- are getting better and better at blocking access within their borders. (Note to Google: Whatever happened to "Don't Be Evil?")
And government regulation aside, insidious commercial considerations are also cutting off access and openness -- including on mobile devices such as the aforementioned iPhone, where an ongoing dispute between Google and Apple (only applications Apple has approved are allowed) brings the issue into sharp focus.
Apple recently blocked Google's voice communications application, claiming it overrides the iPhone's built-in interface. But some critics contend the decision is more directly tied to Apple's desire to undercut competition. Google's competing Android system, on the other hand, allows anyone to write and distribute software without permission.
So it's good news, bad news time again. The good news is that "There is more freedom for the typical Internet user to play, to communicate, to shop -- more opportunities than ever before," as Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, told the AP. "On the worrisome side, there are some longer-term trends that are making it much more possible (for information) to be controlled."
Internet Baby Daddy Len Kleinrock is less equivocal. "Allow that open access, and a thousand flowers bloom," he says. "One thing about the Internet you can predict is you will be surprised by applications you did not expect."
Yet such practical idealism is increasingly rare in government and corporate circles -- creating the need for a movement demanding that the government to require "net neutrality" as a return to the founding principles that motivated Kleinrock and his colleagues decades ago.
If commercial fees and caps on data supply are allowed to discourage unfettered use of the Internet, "You are less likely to try things out," says Vint Cerf, another one of the Internet's founding fathers. Kleinrock, Cerf and the other leading engineers are increasingly concerned that burdensome barriers may squash future innovation before it happens -- and as a result, we may miss the many benefits that unfettered use, experimentation and innovation would certainly bring otherwise.
Many happy returns?
Follow Rory O'Connor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rocglobal