The internet is a worldwide network made up of national, regional and private networks that are linked together by the TCP/IP communication protocol, and that cooperate in order to offer a single interface to their users.
The ambition of the internet is simply to interconnect all the computers in the world. In the same way that the telephone allows you to talk to anybody whose number you know, the internet is a worldwide system for exchanging electronic documents: texts, files, images, sounds and audiovisual sequences. It is a combination of computer technology and telecommunication: telematics in the real sense of the term. The information on the network is accessible via "places" that are called internet sites.
Initially a military network
For many people, 1969 evokes images of Woodstock, but not in cyberspace. For Internet users, 1969 was the year the internet was born.
It all began when a robust communication standard was created: TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). Messages are divided up into packets which go off in many directions before being reunited on arrival. A brilliant idea, developed at the request of the Pentagon at the time of the cold war, which proved to be highly fertile and which has grown exponentially. Since the 1950s, the American government had been seeking solutions to the problem of how to protect the country in the event of a Soviet nuclear attack.
The solution was provided by the Rand corporation, the foremost group of cold war experts. In 1964, a researcher named Paul Baran suggested setting up a communication network that had no central hub. If this network had a nerve centre, a heart where all the decisions were centralised, the Soviets would certainly have directed enough missiles at it to destroy it many times over.
Hence the suggestion of setting up a series of nodes, all equal and all interconnected so that even if several of them were destroyed, the network would continue to operate.
To begin with, an agency of the American defence ministry, the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), financed the setting up of the first nodes of this decentralised network that was to link university researchers, industry and the defence ministry.
Thus was born ArpaNet in December 1969, with four nodes (three in California and one in Salt Lake City).
For science too
The network was originally meant to enable Arpa researchers to do large number crunching remotely using software that they did not have themselves, but which colleagues on the other side of the countr might have on their computers.
However, during the 1970s, researchers connected to ArpaNet found a new use for the network. They began corresponding with their colleagues about their research work, and then, little by little, friendships sprang up and the network started to be used for more personal exchanges, including the latest Richard Nixon jokes ...
In 1972, the first electronic distribution list was created: SF-Lovers, for science fiction enthusiasts. The emergence of the playful side of the internet goes a long way to explaining its popularity today. For the first time, machines were getting a "human face".
The good news spread like wildfire. American universities all started connecting to the network, each one becoming a new node and taking the opportunity to publish the work of their researchers in its FTP (File Transfer Protocol) folder.
As the years went by, Arpa gradually lost control of the development of the network. Researchers from all the NATO countries teamed up with their American counterparts. In 1983, ArpaNet detached itself from the rest of the network, which became the internet, the International Network or Interconnected Network. From then on, it was the American National Science Foundation (NSF) that financed what is called the backbone of the network. Then other agencies such as NASA and the research agencies of other countries and companies like AT&T connected their own networks to this backbone.
The internet boom
It was in the 1990s that the internet became available to a wider public through an easy-to-use system: the World Wide Web (WWW). The number of host computers on the network doubled every year up to 1994, and then took off exponentially from 1995. The number of users now varies between 90 and 120 million, and there are over three hundred million sites available to surf on (2012), compared for example to the 20 000 services that were available in France via their Minitel system.
Meanwhile, Mosaïc appeared followed by Netscape Navigator, the first browsers. The general public took over the Web. Search engines started to appear, headed by the famous Yahoo!
Millions of people with computers and modems discovered that they could gain access to any information they wanted at the click of a mouse. Like television, with such a huge variety of programmes that there is something for everybody, the Web seems to know no limits. The network that, at the beginning was limited to American universities, now expanded enormously. The internet and the World Wide Web became new information technology standards that had never existed before.
Not content with offering the vastest library of texts, sounds and images of all time, the internet became the medium for many futuristic applications: video conferencing, e-commerce, multi-user games etc. No one had imagined such an explosion and many specialists are saying that this is just the beginning. If we struggle to imagine the limits of the internet, this is doubtless because for the first time, each user can become an information provider, and not just a consumer. What sort of system can boast of having such a potential for creativity?
Today the perennial problem is the page downloading and data transmission uploading rates: cables are getting more and more overloaded with more and more Internet users arriving. Technology is evolving and new technology has appeared: ISDN (Integrated Services Distribution Network), ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Line), (enabling transfer speeds many times higher than the original modems using a standard telephone line), and satellites.
Another problem is the quality of the network, increasingly polluted by spam, viruses, trojans and other spyware. For several years we have been hearing the expression INTERNET 2. This is a new network being tested in the USA which in a few years should become the successor to the current network; it will be clearer, tidier and more secure.