views updated May 17 2018


The Internet is a curious phenomenon. It's a vast international institution of critical and growing importance, yet in another sense its properties are so evanescent that it's tempting to say that Internet does not exist; there's no there there except the process itself. The reason is that at heart Internet is nothing more than a highly specific collection of rules or standards for computers called communication protocols. Even the name comes from the U.S. Department of Defense standard TCP/IP (terminal control protocol/internet protocol). What we now see as institutional Internet—the fiber optics and copper cabling, the billions of dollars of computer hardware and software, the business and governmental organizations, and body of human skill and knowledge that's both on the Net and in the user community—emerged and grew with volcanic force inside the purely formal boundaries of the protocol system. What the protocols allowed, the world's social and economic system instantiated.

A critical part of this development was that the protocols in question were public and open, that they were standards and not products per se. This is in contrast to the course of other communications systems, such as the telephone, radio, and television, for which key components were held proprietary or otherwise regulated by patents, secrecy, and both governmental and private monopolies. No one would claim that what has become the Internet was created for the common welfare of all humankind, or that it is guaranteed to work for that welfare in the future. In fact, some of the key components of the Internet came from the bowels of the Pentagon at the height of the Cold War, and the overall moral valence of the Internet is as unsettled a question as one could imagine. But it is useful to note that in many ways the Internet is government work that made good and that its ongoing success appears to depend on public and open standards. Attempts to commercially supplant the Internet or take it proprietary have so far been unsuccessful, despite the huge upsurge of Net-based commerce.


The history of the Internet is partly the history of technology, the hardware of the system. But more important are the social aspects of computer-mediated communication, the human networks created by the hardware system. There are two polar points of view on the social impact of the Internet on communities and society. On the one hand, enthusiasts have argued that the Internet removes barriers that have historically divided people and opens the way to unprecedented equality in social interactions and for social opportunities (Rheingold 1993). On the other hand, critics contend that the Internet removes humanity from social interaction and strands people in an impersonal virtual world without touch, dignity, or personhood (Stoll 1995). The earliest empirical research to address the actual uses and impact of the Internet in social life seems to suggest that people experience Internet interactions in ways similar to their face-to-face social experience. But the technology is young and the scope of its use has broadened only in the 1990s. A decade into the twenty-first century, the prognosis may become clear.

Hardware. If the Internet is anything physical it is a network of computers—actually, a network between networks, an internetwork. Computer networking is not new. Many of the house-sized 1960s-style computers, called mainframes, were often linked into larger networks, although this typically required that computers be in the same building if not the same room. This constraint was partly overcome by using radio-frequency messaging over coaxial cables similar to those now used for cable TV.

Computer networking using coaxial cable became common and useful in the 1960s. But a problem arose when the University of Hawaii decided to adopt a multicampus computer network. Cable connections in Hawaii would not only have to span long distances, they would have to span those distances deep under the Pacific Ocean. The cost was too high even to contemplate. Computer scientists began a search for alternatives and settled on radio-based computer communications—network messages would be broadcast on special channels. The result was called AlohaNet.

A problem immediately arose. The distance between islands in Hawaii is typically only a few hundred miles. It took only a few thousandths of a second (or less) for radio messages to span that distance, but that's a fairly long time for a computer. This meant that two computers at remote locations could start talking at once, each not hearing the other immediately, which garbled their messages. Garbling of this sort was called a message collision. To solve this problem, the AlohaNet designers had to build collision-detection circuitry into their network controllers. A computer would not only have to send messages and listen for other's messages, it would have to check for message collisions, and re-send if a collision occurred.

Such a scheme sounded awkward, but in practice it was elegant. Collision detection and retransmission overhead turned out to be a tiny part of the overall cost in time and speed of the network. Broadcast-style, collision-detecting networks have a number of advantages. First, the number of computers in network (usually called nodes) is not necessarily fixed. If rules are set up to allow it, any computer in a broadcast system can chime in and negotiate to be part of the network. Once that computer is known to the network, messages can be routed to it as if it had been there all along. Second, as long as there are two or more computers up and running in a given network segment, they can talk; their peers could go on- or off-line as it suited them without bringing down the net. The flexibility of broadcast-style networks led to a revolution in computer communication.


Of course, networks actually broadcasting would soon fill up the available radio-frequency spectrum. Consequently, most systems that actually were put in use contained their transmissions inside dedicated runs of coaxial cable, or, later, telephone-like twisted-pair conductors. The most popular of these was the Ethernet system developed by a consortium of computer makers. The Ethernet system allowed a fairly high-speed (1 million bytes per second) network based on coaxial cable to span a physical space one kilometer endto-end, longer with repeaters to boost the signal. This meant that all but the largest of buildings and many whole complexes and campuses could be served by a single, fast local area network (LAN). Originally, in the early 1980s, Ethernet was used mostly to tie together collections of mainframes and smaller minicomputers, but within a few years it was possible inexpensively to integrate most organizations' growing collections of personal computers (PCs—IBMs and clones, Macintoshes, and others) into an Ethernet system. The easy availability of fairly fast, fairly cheap Ethernet LAN systems, and the rising tide of PCs that could use them, was half the nascent Internet equation. You could call it the demand side. Computers increasingly were used not so much as solo workstations but as components in LANs; their interoperability became one of their principal virtues.

ARPAnet and DOD Connectivity. The supply side of the Internet equation actually preceded the growth of LANs by a few years. In the late 1960s, the Department of Defense (DOD) began pumping increasing amounts of money into the softer side of computer science: artificial intelligence, computer graphics, computer voice and hearing, visual processing, natural-language processing, computer-based language translation, and computer networking. The source of the funding was the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration (DARPA, or more commonly, ARPA). The mode of funding was unusual for DOD, in that the research was mostly unclassified and public, in the form of grants to universities and think-tanks.

Public (or partly public) projects seemed to call for a method of openness and interchange different from the Pentagon's historic need-to-know procedures. The method that was suggested was the development and use of a computer network to accomplish document and data interchange and what would now be called electronic mail (e-mail). ARPAnet was built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and a think-tank—Bolt, Baranek and Newman (BBN)—to link together ARPA grant sites and allow ARPA investigators and their staffs to communicate electronically. Physically, ARPAnet used high-speed and expensive leased AT&T telephone long lines to connect to fairly large computers, like the DECsystem 10s and 20s and PDP 11/70s from BBN's neighbor Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Human users typically used simple display terminals to interact with to their local host computers, which sent the messages out over the network. Specialized and proprietary interface gear made the whole thing work. Only members of the ARPA grant club were allowed to participate, which led to hard feelings among those excluded—although cost would have excluded many others anyway. Even in the early 1980s, after ARPAnet had been taken over by the National Science Foundation and become NSFnet (the Internet's immediate ancestor), the cost of participation included about $10,000 up front for network gear, substantial use of a $150,000 minicomputer, and quite a few hundred dollars each month for leased lines.

At least two university-based networking systems sprang up in the late 1970s and early 1980s in an attempt to provide ARPAnet-like connectivity to non-ARPA institutions. Both used a mail-drop scheme to avoid the high costs of leased phone lines. In other words, the participating computers used modest-speed, dial-up modems (like those of most contemporary home PCs in the 1990s, only slower) to phone a predetermined list of their peers at fixed intervals, usually once or twice a day after long-distance rates went down. It worked like an activist organization's telephone tree: each computer called N neighbors, who called N neighbors, and so on, until all the messages were delivered. The process was slow—e-mail sent this way might take overnight or longer to arrive—but it was much less expensive than the full-time alternatives. Mail-drop networks tended to be organized by host-machine type. Universities with big IBM mainframes tended to support Bitnet operation, while sites using the AT&T Unix operating system or clones typically adopted a scheme called Usenet.

The obvious advantages of intersite networking to university researchers and others created a strong demand for this kind of service. Full-time live service such as that provided by ARPAnet was particularly advantageous, since it allowed sharing of computer facilities and easy access to scarce computing resources, such as supercomputers. When the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) began supporting such supercomputer facilities at about the same time DOD was losing interest in its specialized networking, NSF essentially took over the ARPAnet infrastructure and renamed it NSFnet. (ARPAnet lived on for a while inside NSFnet.) NSFnet was initially set up along the same lines as ARPAnet—only institutions that were NSF grant recipients were welcome as members. But interest from other academic and research entities (as well as the broader scope of NSF) caused the system to grow into what is now the Internet.

The Internet in the 1980s and early 1990s was still for the most part a network between networks, the lower-level networks being the university and commercial LANs. Real participation on the Internet by a PC required a dedicated LAN connection, usually a coaxial or twisted-pair link using Ethernet technology, and a high-speed leased link to the Internet backbone. These were available in most university environments but were prohibitively costly to arrange at home. Software developers soon came up with a solution: an Ethernet emulator that ran over ordinary telephone lines using relatively low-cost commercial modems. Serial Line Interface Protocol (SLIP) and its successors allowed ordinary PCs in ordinary homes to dial into Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and function as full-fledged peers on the Internet system. Now, commercial ISPs brought the Internet into homes and small businesses at prices comparable to ordinary voice telephone service.

NSF decommissioned NSFnet in 1995 amidst political fanfare, creating a generic Internet and opening the door to a growing swell of private and commercial development. The electronic marketplace surged, with on-line shopping in the 1998 holiday season topping $1.2 billion over Amercia On-Line (AOL) alone. Private citizens routinely communicated electronically with families and strangers, and located services and information readily from PCs in libraries, schools, businesses, and homes.

Meanwhile, NSF turned its attention to development of the next wave of innovation. In partnership with MCI WorldCom, NSF created and supports the Very High Performance Backbone Network Service (vBNS), also known as Internet 2 and Next Generation Internet. This network links the two leading-edge supercomputing sites and at the end of the 1990s, connected 150 research institutions nationwide. Internet 2 seeks to accelerate Internet development and enable a new generation of applications to improve media integration, real-time collaboration, and interactivity. Although not yet generally accessible by ordinary users, Internet 2 clearly suggests that real time multimedia virtual interaction will soon be possible around the globe. (See King, Frinter, and Pickering 1997, for more detailed history of the Internet.)


E-mail. Probably the most common form of Internet communication is electronic mail, which is text-based messaging from a single computer user to one or more recipients. Internet routing services are used to send the message from a sender's address (e.g. [email protected]) to a recipient's (e.g., [email protected]). Individual addresses represent dedicated mailboxes—actually, special computer files—maintained by the users' ISPs. The mailbox address precedes the @ symbol, and the ISP's address follows it. E-mail has traditionally been plain, unformatted text, but newer e-mail software has the capacity to handle styled text, display graphics, even sound and video. Although these facilities are not yet universal, they suggest that e-mail will become more fluid, stylized, and expressive. In text-based e-mail, emotions are commonly expressed with "emoticons," symbol combinations with a cartoonish character such as :-) for humor or :-( for sadness.

E-mail can take a mass or bulk form. For example, persons with a common interest can sign up to be members of a mailing list under the control of a computer program called a list server, usually called a listserv or mail list. Mail sent to the listserv is relayed to all list members, so that the resulting interchanges have the form of a public broadcast to other listserv members. Some listservs automatically broadcast all messages received, while others are moderated by a member who screens messages for conformity to the group's purpose.

Sometimes mass mailings take a hostile or abusive turn, as in the case of unsolicited commercial e-mail (UCE), usually labeled spam. ("Spam" is not an acronym but an unflattering reference to the lunchmeat; apparently, the usage is an allusion to a Monty Python skit in which a restaurant patron can't get any meal that doesn't contain Spam. Most precisely, spam is abusive mass broadcasting to a Usenet newsgroup, as described below, but the term has been borrowed by the e-mail world.) UCE, or spam, is bulk mail sent inappropriately to computer users who have not requested it. UCE is abusive because it is analogous to junk surface mail sent with postage due—the UCE victim, after all, has to pay for the connection over which the message is delivered, and all Internet users pay indirectly for the infrastructure that carries spam.

Spamming is one example of cultural conflicts that emerge from the migration of commercial practice to the Internet. The Internet grew up in military and academic subcultures where norms and expectations for behavior are explicitly notfor-profit. With the commercialization of the Internet in the late 1990s, many business practices were translated to the new medium without adaptation to existing prescriptions and proscriptions. "Netiquette"—etiquette for the Internet—continues to evolve and issues of social control over the Internet are largely unsettled at the turn of this century.

People tend to assume that e-mail is a relatively private medium. Historically, no one knew an e-mail address unless the user disclosed it. Today, institutions and ISPs publish e-mail addresses, and search engines on the World Wide Web (WWW) can locate many user addresses. In some ways, the e-mail address is coming to replace the telephone number as a direct personal identifier. People seem increasingly to use e-mail instead of the telephone to reach friends, family, and business contacts. With the rise of telephone answering machines and whole-family participation in the work force in the 1990s, delayed responding to any kind of messaging has become normative. E-mail allows people to receive and respond to messages at their convenience, 24 hours per day. Because it is written, messages can be clearly stated and thoughtfully framed. For communication across long distances, e-mail is less expensive than the telephone and can communicate documents much more rapidly than any postal or delivery service. These uses plainly are not revolutionary, just partial replacements of existing communication methods (c.f. Kraut, Patterson, Lundmark, Kiesler, Mukophadhyay, and Scherlis 1998).

Unlike telephone calls, e-mail is usually archived by the servers that send and receive messages, the nodes between corresponding users. In the United States, the legal precedent is that information on the server, or on machines owned by business or government, is owned by the owner of the machine and is not private information. E-mail correspondence may be subject to review by superiors, may be subpoenaed by courts, and may even be considered public records in some states. The privacy protection of telephone wiretapping laws was not extended to e-mail.

E-mail and listservs have become important tools for passing announcements and other information among members of existing face-to-face groups. Listservs are common forums for professional communications and announcements and are often used in classroom study groups to encourage open questioning and discussion. Researchers use listservs to disseminate new findings, share resources, locate grant programs, and even to recruit study participants.

For professional and other formal communications, e-mail has successfully facilitated social contact, social networking, and information distribution (Wellman and Gulia 1999). However, in private communications with family and close friends, e-mail has increased the amount of contact people have, but has not replaced the telephone or face-to-face meetings. People sometimes e-mail even to those they see daily. But they do not replace their visits with e-mail. This suggests that people are missing something when e-mailing to their close others. Perhaps it is the experience of seeing another's face, or hearing another's voice. It remains to be seen whether voice- or video-enhanced e-mail will become accepted as a face-to-face surrogate.

Usenet. Usenet, often called the Internet news facility, is a giant messaging system through which loosely organized thematic discussion takes place on-line. Worldwide, millions of users linked to hundreds of thousands of computer sites write messages that they post to one of more than 30,000 topical newsgroups. These posts are then distributed by Usenet-serving computers to Usenet users. Usenet began in 1979 as a mail-drop messaging alternative to the then-exclusive ARPAnet (see earlier) but evolved into a broadcast-based medium on the Internet.

Usenet topical areas or newsgroups vary by seriousness, from the highly focused to the totally whimsical. Newsgroups with names like "sci.archaeology" or "comp.lang.c++" tend to be largely topic-oriented, while many others have no real purpose other than to offer forums for freewheeling electronic banter and disreputable, nuisance advertising. Newsgroups are loosely organized and vary considerably in their scope and traffic. There are newsgroups offering social support to the ill and grieving and newsgroups offering sexual information to the naive and inexperienced. Information on starting newsgroups is available in the newsgroup news.groups.

Users are not required to wade through thousands of newsgroups to find messages of interest. Most Web browsers now have news-reading functions, or specialized programs are available for this purpose. People typically subscribe to selected newsgroups that they want to examine regularly, so that when they go on-line they will see these 10 or 30 or 200 newsgroups, not 30,000. Messages posted to Usenet are organized in discussion threads, that is, messages related by reference to the same initial post or topic. Users may skip some threads on their subscribed newsgroups, reading only those threads of personal interest.

Usenet has a character similar to that of email–based listservs, although its explicitly public nature gives it a somewhat different feel. Usenet newsgroups historically predate listservs, so that much of netiquette evolved from these public discussion forums. Admonitions against spam originated on Usenet, as did the tendency for people to flame norm violators and discussion rivals. Flaming involves posting a hostile and insulting message to the group, intended to shame the author of a prior post. Flaming may have had its origin in a puerile effort to enforce group norms, but it is just as often a deliberate attempt to violate them for shock value or amusement. A deliberate attempt to provoke a hostile response on Usenet is called trolling; trolling/flaming battles dominate some newsgroups.

Usenet norms are discussed and described in newsgroups devoted to this topic, and summaries are posted in news.announce.newsusers. Additionally, most newsgroups have a document called the Frequently Asked Questions list (the FAQ) that deals with local norms and standards. Beyond these formal statements, something not unlike a community character emerges and is maintained by regular participants in some newsgroups over time. New users, seeking to fit in there, need to go through a process of socialization first, usually by lurking and observing. Other newsgroups, however, are anarchic, and still others are abandoned and ignored.

Research has suggested that newsgroups provide a setting intermediate between the public and the private where stigmatized social identities can be established and supported. For example, McKenna and Bargh (1998) found that homosexuals who had never made their sexual orientation public found the courage to do so through social support on Usenet. In another domain, however, Mickelson (1997) found that mediated social support on Usenet was less helpful to parents of attention-deficit/hyperactive children than face-to-face support in therapy groups. Researchers may investigate other socially unacceptable phenomena by identifying populations and soliciting volunteers on Usenet. Moreover, the messages posted to newsgroups are considered public behavior. As such, they offer a rich resource for social researchers. There is at least one important possible problem: Usenet users may be deceiving others in their self-presentations and in their messages. However, this problem permeates all self-report research and is not specific to Internet phenomena.

Chat. Computer chat evolved from grassroots networking attempts somewhat oblique to the development of the Internet. Chat was initially a feature of old-fashioned local bulletin-board systems (BBS), in which a system operator, or sysop, with (usually) a DOS PC allowed a dozen or so outside parties to dial in with modems and read Usenet-like delayed messages, or to communicate with each other in real time, by typing messages that appeared on the screen with labels indicating from whom they came. Some of the early national time-sharing services such as Compuserve offered this feature, too, often with a name like "CB simulator," indicating the metaphor of the period, citizen-band radio (CB). The idea was that people who were basically strangers would adopt "handles" (later called screen names) that concealed actual identity while advertising proclivities, and that these strangers would engage in streams of banter like CB radio operators out on the highway.

With the advent of mass-marketed national services such as AOL, Microsoft Network, and the like, chat facilities—now organized into topical areas or chat rooms—became one of the principal attractions. Chat and chat metaphors soon became second only to the World Wide Web as the public image of the Internet. Most users access chat facilities through commercial providers where it is implemented on private servers. There are also pure peer-to-peer Internet chat programs, such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC), that don't require a host chat provider. Participation in IRC and related free-floating chat is probably dwarfed by use of AOL and similar commercial services.

Like Usenet, topical options in chat are numerous and variously populated. Users interact in real-time with minimal constraints. As with Usenet, the degree of group norm enforcement in chat rooms varies from high to nonexistent. On commercial providers' chat facilities, broad norms of conduct often are officially enforced by staff members and user volunteers. Other hand-me-downs from Usenet were adapted to the constraints of chat. For example, the chat equivalents of Usenet's emoticons are one-letter abbreviations in angle brackets, like <g> for grin. Apparently, these are both easier to type and to parse than graphic emoticons when one is engaged in chat activity.

With the emergence of chat came a wave of real-life chatter about the development of close relationships between people who met on the Internet. People arranged marriages to others they had never met face-to-face but with whom they had chatted endlessly. The self-disclosure and narrow scope of interactions, as well as the sheer number of encounters, provided a fertile breeding ground for social relationships. Many marriages and friendships founded there have endured, while others have dissolved. While the surge of new relationships and the awe of onlookers have stabilized, chat shows no signs of losing popularity.

Another chat phenomenon, cybersex, involves graphic verbal descriptions of sex acts, exchanged in real time by couples and groups. It is the Internet equivalent of a graphic romance novel, except it is interactive and participatory. Participants may self-stimulate while generating messages to other users. Touted as an opportunity to free the libido from social restriction and personal inhibition, users may engage in unusual acts with minimal personal risk. Cybersex has been controversial. Like arguments over pornography in print, issues of access and censorship remain unsettled as we enter the twenty-first century.

Research on chat has focused primarily on two aspects of chat: the effect of anonymity in chat rooms on the negotiation of social identity (Turkle 1995); and the development of community among interacting users (Wellman and Gulia 1999). Most of this research has involved qualitative analysis or sometimes merely impressionistic characterization of chat activity. Many case studies have been conducted that describe activity in novel chat rooms or the chat experiences of particular individuals. Like Usenet, some chat is public behavior that is ripe for empirical study.

Chat is engaging, just as conversation with similar others is engaging in face-to-face interactions. But with chat, users hear all the conversations in the room, not only their own. Moreover, self-presentations can be well controlled to avoid sharing unflattering information. For these reasons, some people become obsessed with chat activity and seem to develop a dependency on this type of social contact. Others, particularly those who are homebound, have found fulfillment of their social needs through chat. Chat seems to attract a different type of user, relative to Usenet. The chat user seeks the interaction, perhaps more than the information available from topical discussion. Usenet users may seek the information and prefer not to be distracted by the interaction.

Multi-User Domains (MUDs). In the late 1970s and early 1980s, as the Net was still in its infancy, the fantasy role-playing game of Dungeons and Dragons swept through high schools and colleges. MUDs (Multi-User Domains or Multi-User Dungeons) originated as electronic platforms for similar fantasy games. They have become more elaborate and more free of goal-based game character as they have grown in popularity. They are based on different kinds of software (specified by names such as MUSE, MOO, or MUSH) that can be accessed through the Internet.

Users, known as players, join MUDs through a command that connects their computer to the computer running the game program. Connection gives players access to a shared database of rooms, exits, and other virtual objects, which are created and manipulated through simple commands. Players create a character to play (called an avatar) by giving the character a name and a description, and enter rooms. Players interact with each other using simple commands such as "say" to talk to others in the room, "whisper" to talk to specific others, or "emote" for nonverbal expressions. Avatars grow and develop through interaction and game experience.

While some MUDs have graphical interfaces that allow characters and objects to be represented by icons, most interfaces so far have been textual. MUDs require the player's imagination to create the objects, the actions, and the outcomes of the process. There is no necessary goal, and rules can be fluid. The interactions are the thing of interest. The Usenet news group periodically lists Internet-accessible MUDs with their complete network addresses.

There has been tremendous interest in MUDs because they are the most unusual modality on the Internet, most different from RL, that is, real life. Avid players remain connected for days, cycling between RL and several different MUDs. Players may be especially susceptible to Internet dependency as some are drawn deeper into the fantasy world of the MUDs. There, identity is self-described and under the complete control of the player. One may be whoever one wishes to be. And actions are free of RL consequences, so freedom is perfected in the MUDs. Finally, anonymity is complete, with no means available to identify players in RL. These features allow MUDs to offer a utopian existence in a virtual world that is forever changing and changeable.

Researchers interested in the effects of simulation and role play on the development of identity are flocking to MUDs to investigate. Researchers interested in the effect of special types of relationships, or exposure to violence, on the family are also observing MUDs. And researchers interested in Internet dependence are focused on MUDs as well (e.g. Turkle 1995).

While interesting and entertaining environments, it may be premature to generalize findings based on observations of MUDs to other types of Internet experience. Although MUDs are anonymous, as are some chats, most Internet activity is identifiable and public. Although MUDs, and some chats, are user-created and malleable fantasy forums, most Internet activity is quite constrained both by norms and technical requirements, as well as considerations of cost and practicality. MUDs will likely continue to appeal to certain subpopulations, but they are not expected to become primary activities of Internet users. In fact, the trend at the turn of the century suggests that traditional games are becoming available as network software that can be shared and played inter-actively with others (Monopoly, bridge, Risk, etc.). They are appealing to a broad audience, both young and old. These games involve no avatars and no explicit fantasies about social identity. It is too early to tell whether they will compete effectively with MUDs for player time in RL.

World Wide Web (WWW). E-mail, Usenet, and chat facilities are to some extent immediate and ephemeral. They depend on user activity to generate their subject matter, and they require a constant stream—in the case of chat, a stream in real time. Other Internet-based facilities arose in an attempt to provide access to more fixed corpora of text: public-domain literature, programs, documents, and so forth.

Information protocols were an attempt to link data-storage facilities and user software to make Internet-based information search and retrieval convenient. A rudimentary form was File Transfer Protocol or FTP. FTP allowed external users to go to a foreign computer—if they knew where it was, what they were looking for, and how to sign on—and retrieve some of the files to which they were given access. Gopher, another information protocol, was similar in that it put selected parts of a computer file directory on the Net in a form suitable for browsing. A network of cooperating Gopher servers built a large-scale index of their total contents that was available as an entry point. Wide-Area Information Service (WAIS) was a more industrial-strength and business-oriented approach to the problem.

Gopher, WAIS, and to a significant extent most of the rest of the Internet have been superceded by World Wide Web, a generalized hypertext facility that has submodalities corresponding to most other computer communication tasks. The idea of hypertext had been around since the 1960s—a computer-driven book with interconnected parts. Users could browse the hyperbook by following the linkages. Hypertext had been implemented on single computers or networks in various ways in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, at the European high-energy physics lab CERN (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire, Council for European Nuclear Research), Tim Berners-Lee developed a method of doing this over the Internet, which he called World Wide Web. WWW, or the Web as it is more often called, uses coded tags and descriptors (e.g. URLs, HTTP, HTML) to specify dynamic behaviors on a user's computer screen when links are invoked. This selection opens a file or otherwise triggers an event, spilling information to the user's screen.

WWW caught on explosively when inexpensive ISP access and Web service became widely available. Many individuals established WWW sites to describe their personal lives, their work, families, friends, and even their pets. For academics, Web sites typically described professional interests. Many course materials were posted to Web sites where students could retrieve them at any time. Businesses posted their personnel directories, and cities posted their public officials. Cinemas posted their playing times. It became a kind of instant, paperless desktop publishing mixed with features of a home broadcasting studio.

WWW is not socially interactive in the sense that e-mail or Usenet are interactive. Instead, interaction is scripted and restricted to some fixed set of user actions, somewhat like a video game. But the coupling of WWW with database applications and complicated scripting languages gave it a dynamic feel. Animations, sounds, and other types of sensory stimulus contribute to this feeling, and these frills will become the norm with Internet 2.

While mainstream business, institutions, and interest groups have WWW sites describing themselves, so do deviant interests. Because interaction is controlled by the Webmasters, criticism for deviance can be avoided. Militant and extremists groups, pornographers, and political interests abound and freely argue their unpopular opinions on WWW. Issues of censorship and access restrictions, particularly for children, are largely unsettled.

Information is located on the Web by search engines that use logical operations to specify criteria for matching against hypertext found on registered servers. Different search engines, such as Yahoo or AltaVista, work with different subsets of WWW sites, so search results vary. Webmasters link together related sites and improve their odds of appearing in the search results of interested users. And respectable information is very prevalent, although sometimes difficult to distinguish from the propaganda. WWW does not provide a reference librarian or tour guide, and the only requirement to post information is access to a Web-serving computer. For this reason, educators were encouraged to emphasize strategies for evaluating source credibility and information integrity in their curricula, and researchers are scrambling to understand how people may effectively discern valid information.

Professionals already disseminate their research results and theories on WWW. Many electronic journals are available only on-line; some print journals are also publish electronically. Many researchers post their own work to a personal Web page for others to easily access and reference. However, publishing a work on the Web may interfere with journals' claims to copyright on the same material, so many professional organizations are discouraging the posting of research papers prior to mainstream publication. Still, post-print abstracts and full-text articles are available in on-line databases and libraries. This wealth of information has made literature searching simpler and more useful than ever before.

Researchers have also established Web sites for data collections for studies of almost everything imaginable. Research materials (e.g., questionnaires, stimuli) are posted to a site accessed by a code provided by researchers to participants. Some studies simply recruit all comers to participation. Some research sites are scripted, so that the user follows a specified sequence of activities. Others require relatively few and simple actions. Participants prefer the convenience of WWW administrations to face-to-face meetings with researchers. But researchers cannot verify that participants are who they say they are, and some control over the situation is lost. Early comparisons of pencil-and-paper questionnaires to WWW questionnaires found no differences in responding due to administrative mediums for short, self-report data where sampling was controlled (Kardas and Milford 1996).

WWW as a platform for propaganda, commerce, and entertainment has not been lost on the public. In fact, many people are betting large sums of money in development and investment that WWW is revolutionary. Already, users can read about a new vocalist, find her latest recording, listen to it, buy it, and order tickets to her upcoming concert—all accomplished in a few minutes without leaving home or waiting in lines! For many users, WWW has replaced their telephone books, mail-order catalogues, newspapers, and libraries, as all of this information is easily accessed on the Web.

Since live audio, live video, live telephone transmissions, and similarly active content can be transmitted and manipulated inside WWW, on the Internet, we would seem to have arrived at a stage at which function does not necessarily follow the network form. The old Internet, with text-based messaging and 48-hour relay turnarounds, seems hopelessly outdated, even quaint. What we've reached seems to be a stage of pure mediation: The Internet, through the mechanism of WWW, has the capacity to be a conduit for nearly any form of information, limited only by the available network bandwidth, transmission speed, and user patience. The extent to which the social conduct of life on the Net carries traces of its ancestry remains to be seen.


Kardas, E. P., and T. M. Milford 1996 Using the Internetfor Social Science Research and Practice. New York: Wadsworth.

King, J., R. E. Grinter, and J. M. Pickering 1997 "The Rise and Fall of Netville: The Saga of a Cyberspace Construction Boomtown in the Great Divide." In S. Kiesler, ed., Culture of the Internet. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Kraut, R., M. Patterson, V. Lundmark, S. Kiesler, T. Mukophadhyay, and W. Scherlis 1998 "Internet Paradox: A Social Technology that Reduces Social Involvement and Psychological Well-Being?" AmericanPsychologist 53:1017–1031.

McKenna, K. Y. A., and J. A. Bargh 1998 "Coming Out in the Age of the Internet: Identity 'Demarginalization' Through Virtual Group Participation." Journal ofPersonality and Social Psychology 75:681–694.

Mickelson, K. D. 1997 "Seeking Social Support: Parents in Electronic Support Groups." In S. Kiesler, ed., Culture of the Internet. Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum.

Rheingold, H. 1993 The Virtual Community. New York: HarperCollins.

Stoll, C. 1995 Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on theInformation Highway. New York: Doubleday.

Turkle, S. 1995 Life on the Screen. New York: Simon-Schuster.

Wellman, B., and M. Gulia 1999 "Net-Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities." In B. Wellman, ed., Networks in the Global Village. Oxford, England: Westview.

Diana Odom Gunn
Christopher W. Gunn


views updated May 21 2018








The Internet is a vast global system of interconnected technical networks made up of heterogeneous information and communication technologies. It is also a social and economic assemblage that allows diverse forms of communication, creativity, and cultural exchange at a scope and scale unknown before the late twentieth century.

The terms Internet and net are often used when discussing the social implications of new information technologies, such as the creation of new communal bonds across great distances or new forms of wealth and inequality. Such a usage is imprecise: The Internet is distinct from the applications and technologies that are built upon it, such as e-mail, the World Wide Web, online gaming, filesharing networks, and e-commerce and e-governance initiatives. There are also many networks that are or were once distinct from the Internet, such as mobile telephone networks and electronic financial networks.

Stated more precisely, the Internet is an infrastructural substrate that possesses innovative social, cultural, and economic features allowing creativity (or innovation) based on openness and a particular standardization process. It is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for many of the social and cultural implications often attributed to it. Understanding the particularity of the Internet can be key to differentiating its implications and potential impact on society from the impacts of information technology and computers more generally.


The Internet developed through military, university, corporate, and amateur user innovations occurring more or less constantly beginning in the late 1960s. Despite its complexity, it is unlike familiar complex technical objectsfor example, a jumbo jetlinerthat are designed, tested, and refined by a strict hierarchy of experts who attempt to possess a complete overview of the object and its final state. By contrast, the Internet has been subject to innovation, experimentation, and refinement by a much less well-defined collective of diverse users with wide-ranging goals and interests.

In 1968 the Internet was known as the ARPAnet, named for its principal funding agency, the U.S. Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). It was a small but extensive research project organized by the Information Processing Techniques Office at ARPA that focused on advanced concepts in computing, specifically graphics, time-sharing, and networking. The primary goal of the network was to allow separate administratively bounded resources (computers and software at particular geographical sites) to be shared across those boundaries, without forcing standardization across all of them. The participants were primarily university researchers in computer and engineering departments. Separate experiments in networking, both corporate and academic, were also under way during this period, such as the creation of Ethernet by Robert Metcalfe at Xerox PARC and the X.25 network protocols standardized by the International Telecommunications Union.

By 1978 the ARPAnet had grown to encompass dozens of universities and military research sites in the United States. At this point the project leaders at ARPA recognized a need for a specific kind of standardization to keep the network feasible, namely a common operating system and networking software that could run on all of the diverse hardware connected to the network. Based on its widespread adoption in the 1970s, the UNIX operating system was chosen by ARPA as one official platform for the Internet. UNIX was known for its portability (ability to be installed on different kinds of hardware) and extensibility (ease with which new components could be added to the core system). Bill Joy (who later cofounded Sun Microsystems) is credited with the first widespread implementation of the Internet Protocol (IP) software in a UNIX operating system, a version known as Berkeley Systems Distribution (BSD).

The Internet officially began (in name and in practice) in 1983, the date set by an ad hoc group of engineers known as the Network Working Group (NWG) as the deadline for all connected computers to begin using the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) protocols. These protocols were originally designed in 1973 and consistently improved over the ensuing ten years, but only in 1983 did they become the protocols that would define the Internet. At roughly the same time, ARPA and the Department of Defense split the existing ARPAnet in two, keeping Milnet for sensitive military use and leaving ARPAnet for research purposes and for civilian uses.

From 1983 to 1993, in addition to being a research network, the Internet became an underground, subcultural phenomenon, familiar to amateur computer enthusiasts, university students and faculty, and hackers. The Internets glamour was largely associated with the arcane nature of interaction it demandedlargely text-based, and demanding access to and knowledge of the UNIX operating system. Thus, owners of the more widespread personal computers made by IBM and Apple were largely excluded from the Internet (though a number of other similar networks such as Bulletin Board Services, BITNet, and FidoNET existed for PC users).

A very large number of amateur computer enthusiasts discovered the Internet during this period, either through university courses or through friends, and there are many user-initiated innovations that date to this period, ranging from games (e.g., MUDs, or Multi-User Dungeons) to programming and scripting languages (e.g., Perl, created by Larry Wall) to precursors of the World Wide Web (e.g., WAIS, Archie, and Gopher). During this period, the network was overseen and funded by the National Science Foundation, which invested heavily in improving the basic infrastructure of fiberoptic backbones in the United States in 1988. The oversight and management of the Internet was commercialized in 1995, with the backing of the presidential administration of Bill Clinton.

In 1993 the World Wide Web (originally designed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in Switzerland) and the graphical Mosaic Web Browser (created by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois) brought the Internet to a much larger audience. Between 1993 and 2000 the dot-com boom drove the transformation of the Internet from an underground research phenomena to a nearly ubiquitous and essential technology with far-reaching effects. Commercial investment in infrastructure and in web presence saw explosive growth; new modes of interaction and communication (e.g., e-mail, Internet messaging, and mailing lists) proliferated; Uniform Resource Locators (URLs, such as became a common (and highly valued) feature of advertisements and corporate identity; and artists, scientists, citizens, and others took up the challenge of both using and understanding the new medium.


The core technical components of the Internet are standardized protocols, not hardware or software, strictly speakingthough obviously it would not have spread so extensively without the innovations in microelectronics, the continual enhancement of telecommunications infrastructures around the globe, and the growth in ownership and use of personal computers over the last twenty years. Protocols make the inter in the Internet possible by allowing a huge number of nonoverlapping and incompatible networks to become compatible and to route data across all of them.

The key protocols, known as TCP/IP, were designed in 1973 by Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn. Other key protocols, such as the Domain Name System (DNS) and User Datagram Protocol (UDP), came later. These protocols have to be implemented in software (such as in the UNIX operating system described above) to allow computers to interconnect. They are essentially standards with which hardware and software implementations must comply in order for any type of hardware or software to connect to the Internet and communicate with any other hardware and software that does the same. They can best be understood as a kind of technical Esperanto.

The Internet protocols differ from traditional standards because of the unconventional social process by which they are developed, validated, and improved. The Internet protocols are elaborated in a set of openly available documents known as Requests for Comments (RFCs), which are maintained by a loose federation of engineers called the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF, the successor to the Network Working Group). The IETF is an organization open to individuals (unlike large standards organizations that typically accept only national or corporate representatives) that distributes RFCs free of charge and encourages members to implement protocols and to improve them based on their experiences and users responses. The improved protocol then may be released for further implementation.

This positive feedback loop differs from most consensus-oriented standardization processes (e.g., those of international organizations such as ISO, the International Organization for Standardization) that seek to achieve a final and complete state before encouraging implementations. The relative ease with which one piece of software can be replaced with another is a key reason for this difference. During the 1970s and 1980s this system served the Internet well, allowing it to develop quickly, according to the needs of its users. By the 1990s, however, the scale of the Internet made innovation a slower and more difficult procedurea fact that is most clearly demonstrated by the comparatively glacial speed with which the next generation of the Internet protocol (known as IP Version 6) has been implemented.

Ultimately, the IETF style of standardization process has become a common cultural reference point of engineers and expert users of the Internet, and has been applied not only to the Internet, but also to the production of applications and tools that rely on the Internet. The result is a starkly different mode of innovation and sharing that is best exemplified by the growth and success of so-called free software or open-source software. Many of the core applications that are widely used on the Internet are developed in this fashion (famous examples include the Linux operating system kernel and the Apache Web Server).


As a result of the unusual development process and the nature of the protocols, it has been relatively easy for the Internet to advance around the globe and to connect heterogeneous equipment in diverse settings, wherever there are willing and enthusiastic users with sufficient technical know-how. The major impediment to doing so is the reliability (or mere existence) of preexisting infrastructural components such as working energy and telecommunications infrastructures. Between 1968 and 1993 this expansion was not conducted at a national or state level, but by individuals and organizations who saw local benefit in expanding access to the global network. If a university computer science department could afford to devote some resources to computers dedicated to routing traffic and connections, then all the researchers in a department could join the network without needing permission from any centralized state authority. It was not until the late 1990s that Internet governance became an issue that concerned governments and citizens around the world. In particular, the creation of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has been the locus of fractious dispute, especially in international arenas. ICANNs narrow role is to assign IP numbers (e.g., and the names they map to (e.g.,, but it has been perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an instrument of U.S. control over the Internet.

With each expansion of the Internet, issues of privacy, security, and organizational (or national) authority have become more pressing. At its outset the Internet protocols sought to prioritize control within administrative boundaries, leaving rules governing use to the local network owners. Such a scheme obviated the need for a central authority that determined global rules about access, public/private boundaries, and priority of use. With the advent of widespread commercial access, however, such local control has been severely diluted, and the possibility for individual mischief (e.g., identity theft, spam, and other privacy violations) has increased with increasing accessibility.

On the one hand, increased commercial access means a decline in local organized authority over parts of the Internet in favor of control of large segments by Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications/cable corporations. On the other hand, as the basic infrastructure of the Internet has spread, so have the practices and norms that were developed in concert with the technologyincluding everything from the proper way to configure a router, to norms of proper etiquette on mailing lists and for e-mail. Applications built on top of the Internet have often adopted such norms and modes of use, and promoted a culture of innovation, of hacking (someone who creates new software by employing a series of modifications that exploit or extend existing code or resources, with good or bad connotations depending on the context), and of communal sharing of software, protocols, and tools.

It is thus important to realize that although most users do not experience the Internet directly, the development of the particular forms of innovation and openness that characterize the Internet also characterize the more familiar applications built on top of it, due to the propagation of these norms and modes of engineering. There is often, therefore, a significant difference between innovations that owe their genesis to the Internet and those developed in the personal computer industry, the so-called proprietary software industry, and in distinct commercial network infrastructures (e.g., the SABRE system for airline reservations, or the MOST network for credit card transactions). The particularity of the Internet leads to different implications and potential impact on society than the impacts of information technology or computers more generally.


One of the most widely discussed and experienced implications of the Internet is the effect on the culture industries, especially music and film. As with previous media (e.g., video and audio cassette recorders), it is the intersection of technology and intellectual property that is responsible for the controversy. Largely due to its openness, the Internet creates the possibility for low-cost and extremely broad and fast distribution of cultural materials, from online books to digital music and film. At the same time, it also creates the possibility for broad and fast violation of intellectual property rightsrights that have been strengthened considerably by the copyright act of 1976 and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (1998).

The result is a cultural battle over the meaning of sharing music and movies, and the degree to which such sharing is criminal. The debates have been polarized between a war on piracy on the one hand (with widely varying figures concerning the economic losses), and consumer freedom on the otherrights to copy, share, and trade purchased music. The cultural implication of this war is a tension among the entertainment industry, the artists and musicians, and the consumers of music and film. Because the openness of the Internet makes it easier than ever for artists to distribute their work, many see a potential for direct remuneration, and cheaper and more immediate access for consumers. The entertainment industry, by contrast, argues that it provides more services and qualitynot to mention more funding and capitaland that it creates jobs and contributes to a growing economy. In both cases, the investments are protected primarily by the mechanism of intellectual property law, and are easily diluted by illicit copying and distribution. And yet, it is unclear where to draw a line between legitimate sharing (which might also be a form of marketing) and illegitimate sharing (piracy, according to the industry).


A key question about the Internet is that of social equity and access. The term digital divide has been used primarily to indicate the differential in individual access to the Internet, or in computer literacy, between rich and poor, or between developed and developing nations. A great deal of research has gone into understanding inequality of access to the Internet, and estimates of both differential access and the rate of the spread of access have varied extremely widely, depending on methodology. It is, however, clear from the statistics that between 1996 and 2005 the rate of growth in usage has been consistently greater than 100 percent in almost all regions of the globe at some times, and in some places it has reached annual growth rates of 500 percent or more. Aside from the conclusion that the growth in access to the Internet has been fantastically rapid, there are few sure facts about differential access.

There are, however, a number of more refined questions that researchers have begun investigating: Is the quantity or rate of growth in access to the Internet larger or smaller than in the case of other media (e.g., television, print, and radio)? Are there significant differences within groups with access (e.g., class, race, or national differences in quality of access)? Does access actually enhance or change a persons life chances or opportunities?

The implication of a digital divide (whether between nations and regions, or within them) primarily concerns the quality of information and the ability of individuals to use it to better their life chances. In local terms, this can affect development issues broadly (e.g., access to markets and government, democratic deliberation and participation, and access to education and employment opportunities); in global terms, differential access can affect the subjective understandings of issues ranging from religious intolerance to global warming and environmental issues to global geopolitics. Digital divides might also differ based on the political situationsuch as in the case of the Chinese governments attempt to censor access to politicized information, which in turn can affect the fate of cross-border investment and trade.

SEE ALSO Information, Economics of; Media; Microelectronics Industry; Property Rights, Intellectual


Abbate, Janet. 1999. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Castells, Manuel. 2001. The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

DiMaggio, Paul, Eszter Hargittai, Coral Celeste, and Steven Shafer. 2004. Digital Inequality: From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use. In Social Inequality, ed. Kathryn Neckerman, 355400. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

International Telecommunication Union. ICT Indicators.

Meuller, Milton. 2004. Ruling the Root: Internet Governance and the Taming of Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration. A Nation Online: Entering the Broadband Era.

Norberg, Arthur L., and Judy E. ONeill. 1996. Transforming Computer Technology: Information Processing for the Pentagon, 19621986. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Schmidt, Susanne K., and Raymund Werle. 1997. Coordinating Technology: Studies in the International Standardization of Telecommunications. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Waldrop, M. Mitchell. 2001. The Dream Machine: JCR Licklider and the Revolution That Made Computing Personal. New York: Viking Penguin.

Weber, Steven. 2004. The Success of Open Source. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Christopher M. Kelty


views updated Jun 08 2018


A worldwidetelecommunicationsnetwork of business, government, and personal computers.

The internet is a network of computers linking the United States with the rest of the world. Originally developed as a way for U.S. research scientists to communicate with each other, by the mid 1990s the Internet had become a popular form of telecommunication for personal computer users. The dramatic growth in the number of persons using the network heralded the most important change in telecommunications since the introduction of television in the late 1940s. However, the sudden popularity of a new, unregulated communications technology raised many issues for U.S. law.

The Internet, popularly called the Net, was created in 1969 for the U.S. defense department. Funding from the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) allowed researchers to experiment with methods for computers to communicate with each other. Their creation, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), originally linked only four separate computer sites at U.S. universities and research institutes, where it was used primarily by scientists.

In the early 1970s, other countries began to join ARPANET, and within a decade it was widely accessible to researchers, administrators, and students throughout the world. The National Science Foundation (NSF) assumed responsibility for linking these users of ARPANET, which was dismantled in 1990. The NSF Network (NSFNET) now serves as the technical backbone for all Internet communications in the United States.

The Internet grew at a fast pace in the 1990s as the general population discovered the power of the new medium. A significant portion of the Net's content is written text, in the form of both electronic mail (e-mail) and articles posted in an electronic discussion forum known as the Usenet news groups. In the mid-1990s the appearance of the World Wide Web made the Internet even more popular. The World Wide Web is a multimedia interface that allows for the transmission of text, pictures, audio, and video together, known as web pages, which commonly resemble pages in a magazine. Together, these various elements have made the Internet a medium for communication and for the retrieval of information on virtually any topic.

The sudden growth of the Internet caught the legal system unprepared. Before 1996, Congress had passed little legislation on this form of telecommunication. In 1986, Congress passed the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) (18 U.S.C.A. § 2701 et seq. [1996]), which made it illegal to read private e-mail. The ECPA extended most of the protection already granted to conventional mail to electronic mail. Just as the post office may not read private letters, neither may the providers of private bulletin boards, on-line services, or Internet access. However, law enforcement agencies can subpoena e-mail in a criminal investigation. The ECPA also permits employers to read their workers' e-mail. This provision was intended to protect companies against industrial spying, but it has generated lawsuits from employees who objected to the invasion of their privacy. Federal courts, however, have allowed employers to secretly monitor an employee's e-mail on a company-owned computer system, concluding that employees have no reasonable expectation of privacy when they use company e-mail.

Should the Internet Be Policed?

Few observers could have predicted the fuss that the Internet began to generate in political and legal circles in the mid-1990s. After all, the global computer network linking 160 countries was hyped relentlessly in the media in the early 1990s. It spawned a multimillion-dollar industry in Internet services and a publishing empire devoted to the online experience—not to mention Hollywood movies, newspaper columns, and new jargon. But the honeymoon did not last. Like other communications media before it, the Internet provoked controversy about what was actually sent across it. Federal and state lawmakers proposed crackdowns on its content. Prosecutors took aim at its users. Civil liberties groups fought back. As the various factions engaged in a tug-of war over the future of this sprawling medium, the debate became a question of freedom or control: should the Internet be left alone as a marketplace of ideas, or should it be regulated, policed, and ultimately "cleaned up"? Although this question became heated during the early- to mid-1990s, it has remained a debated issue into the early 2000s.

More than three decades after defense department contractors put it up, the network remains free from official control. This system has no central governing authority for a very good reason: the general public was never intended to use it. Its designers in the late 1960s were scientists. Several years later, academics and students around the world got access to it. In the 1990s, millions of people in U.S. businesses and homes signed on. Before the public signed on its predecessors had long since developed a kind of Internet culture—essentially, a freewheeling, anything-goes setting. The opening of the Internet to everyone from citizens to corporations necessarily ruptured this formerly closed society, and conflicts appeared.

Speech rights quickly became a hot topic of debate. The Internet is a communications medium, and people have raised objections to speech online just as they have to speech in the real world. The Internet allows for a variety of media—text, pictures, movies, and sound—and pornography is abundantly accessible online in all these forms. It is commonly "posted" as coded information to a part of the Internet called Usenet, a public issues forum that is used primarily for discussions. With over 10,000 topic areas, called news groups, Usenet literally caters to the world's panoply of interests and tastes. Certain news groups are devoted entirely to pornography. As the speed of the Internet increased dramatically with the development of broadband access in the late 1990s and early 2000s, not only has more of this type of information become more available, but also users have been able to access this information in greater quantity.

Several signs in 1994 predicted a legal crackdown on the Internet. Early on, U.S. attorney general janet reno said criminal investigators were exploring the originators of online child pornography. In July 1994, federal prosecutors won an obscenity conviction in Tennessee against the operators of a computer bulletin board system (BBS) called the Amateur Action BBS, a private porn subscription service. Quickly becoming a cause célèbre in the online world, the case raised the question of how far off a general Internet crackdown could be.

In December 1994, a college student's fiction raised a furor. Jake Baker, a sophomore in linguistics at the University of Michigan, published a story about sexual torture in the news group on Usenet. Its lurid detail was not unique in the news group, but something else was: Baker used the name of a female classmate for one of his fictional victims. Once the name was recognized, campus critics of pornography lashed out at Baker.

Baker's case demonstrated how seriously objections to Internet material would be taken. In January 1995, the University of Michigan opened an investigation, and soon, federal bureau of investigation agents began reviewing Baker's e-mail. Baker insisted he meant no harm, suggesting that he wanted to be a creative writer. He even submitted to a psychological profile, which determined that he posed no danger to the student named in his story or to anyone else. But on February 9, 1995, federal authorities arrested him. He was charged with five counts of using inter-state communications to make threats to injure—and kidnap—another person. Lacking any specific target for Baker's alleged threats, yet armed with allegedly incriminating e-mail, prosecutors charged that he was dangerous to other university students. The american civil liberties union (ACLU) came to his aid, arguing in an amicus brief that the accusations were baseless and moreover violated Baker's first amendment rights. A U.S. district court judge threw out the case.

The U.S. Senate had its own ideas about online speech. In February 1995, Senator J. James Exon (D-NE) introduced the Communications Decency Act (S. 314, 104th Cong., 1st Sess. [1995]). Targeting "obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent" electronic communications, the bill called for two-year prison sentences and fines of up to $100,000 for anyone who makes such material available to anyone under the age of 18. In its original form, the bill would have established broad criminal liability: users, online services, and the hundreds of small businesses providing Internet accounts would all be required to keep their messages, stories, postings, and e-mail decent. After vigorous protest from access providers, the bill was watered down to protect them: they would not be held liable unless they knowingly provided indecent material.

Several groups lined up to stop the Decency Act. Opposition came from civil liberties groups including the ACLU, the electronic frontier foundation (EFF), and Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, as well as from online services and Internet access providers. They argued that the bill sought to criminalize speech that is constitutionally protected under the First Amendment.

Although Congress eventually outlawed obscene and other forms of indecent sexual material on the Internet in the Communications Decency Act of 1996, 47 U.S.C.A. § 223, the statute was challenged immediately. In Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 117 S. Ct. 2329, 138 L. Ed. 2d 874 (1997), the Supreme Court found that most of the statute's provisions violated the First Amendment. Congress subsequently sought to focus its attention on legislation that proscribes the transmission of child pornography, though the Supreme Court in a series of cases found that these statutes were likewise unconstitutional.

The central concern in Reno and the subsequent cases was that Congress has prohibited constitutionally protected speech in addition to speech that is not afforded First Amendment protection. Some members of Congress and supporters of such legislation suggested that restrictions on obscene and indecent information are necessary in order to protect children who use the Internet. But opponents of these restrictions noted that the Internet cannot be reduced to include only that information that is appropriate for children, and the Supreme Court reached this precise conclusion.

Although the debate about whether the government should regulate pornography and other obscene material continued, much of the focus about Internet policing shifted to other issues that involve the Internet. One important issue has been how the government can protect copyright and other intellectual property owners from piracy that is somewhat common on the medium. Another major issue is how the government can prevent the dissemination of unwanted advertising, usually sent through e-mail and commonly referred to as spam. Likewise, computer viruses have caused millions of dollars of damages to computer owners in the United States and worldwide in the 1990s and 2000s, and most of these viruses have been distributed through the Internet.

Many Internet users, some of whom may otherwise object to government regulation of the medium, view governmental regulation that protects users from such problems as piracy, viruses, and spam more favorably than other forms of regulation. Nevertheless, even regulation of computer crime raises issues, such as whether such regulation may violate users' First Amendment rights or how government regulation protecting against these harms can be effective. As the Internet continues to develop, and even as the medium gradually becomes more standardized, these questions largely remain unanswered.

further readings

Crandall, Robert W., and James H. Alleman, eds. 2002. Broadband: Should We Regulate High-Speed Internet Access? Washington, D.C.: AEI-Brookings Joint Center for Regulatory Studies.

Federal Trade Commission. 1999. Self-Regulation and Privacy Online: A Report to Congress. Washington, D.C.: Federal Trade Commission.



Criminal activity on the Internet generally falls into the category of computer crime. It includes so-called hacking, or breaking into computer systems, stealing account passwords and credit-card numbers, and illegally copying intellectual property. Because personal computers can easily copy information—including everything from software to photographs and books—and the information can be sent anywhere in the world quickly, it has become much more difficult for copyright owners to protect their property.

Public and legislative attention, especially in the mid to late 1990s, focused on Internet content, specifically sexually explicit material. The distribution of pornography became a major concern in the 1990s, as private individuals and businesses found an unregulated means of giving away or selling pornographic images. As hard-core and child pornography proliferated, Congress sought to impose restrictions on obscene and indecent content on the Internet.

In 1996, Congress responded to concerns that indecent and obscene materials were freely distributed on the Internet by passing the Communications Decency Act (CDA) as part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, Pub. L. No. 104-104, 110 Stat. 56. This law forbade the knowing dissemination of obscene and indecent material to persons under the age of 18 through computer networks or other telecommunications media. The act included penalties for violations of up to five years imprisonment and fines of up to $250,000.

The american civil liberties union (ACLU) and online Internet services immediately challenged the CDA as an unconstitutional restriction on freedom of speech. A special three-judge federal panel in Pennsylvania agreed with these groups, concluding that the law was overbroad because it could limit the speech of adults in its attempt to protect children. American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 929 F. Supp. 824 (E.D. Pa. 1996).

The government appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the Court affirmed the three-judge panel on a 7-2 vote, finding that the act violated the first amendment. Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, 521 U.S. 844, 117 S. Ct. 2329, 136 L. Ed. 2d 236 (1997). Though the Court recognized the "legitimacy and importance of the congressional goal of protecting children from the harmful materials" on the Internet, it ruled that the CDA abridged freedom of speech and that it therefore was unconstitutional.

Justice john paul stevens, writing for the majority, acknowledged that the sexually explicit materials on the Internet range from the "modestly titillating to the hardest core." He concluded, however, that although this material is widely available, "users seldom encounter such content accidentally." In his view, a child would have to have "some sophistication and some ability to read to retrieve material and thereby to use the Internet unattended." He also pointed out that systems for personal computers have been developed to help parents limit access to objectionable material on the Internet and that many commercial web sites have age-verification systems in place.

Turning to the CDA, Stevens found that previous decisions of the Court that limited free speech out of concern for the protection of children were inapplicable. The CDA differed from the laws and orders upheld in the previous cases in significant ways. The CDA did not allow parents to consent to their children's use of restricted materials, and it was not limited to commercial transactions. In addition, the CDA failed to provide a definition of "indecent," and its broad prohibitions were not limited to particular times of the day. Finally, the act's restrictions could not be analyzed as forms of time, place, and manner regulations because the act was a content-based blanket restriction on speech. Accordingly, it could not survive the First Amendment challenge.

In 1998, Congress responded to the decision by enacting the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), Pub. L. No. 105-277, 112 Stat. 2681. This act was narrower in its application than the CDA, applying only to commercial transactions and limited to content deemed to be "harmful to minors." The new statute was subject to immediate litigation. A federal district court placed a preliminary injunction on the application of the statute, and this decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. American Civil Liberties Union v. Reno, 217 F.3d 162 (3d Cir. 2000). Although the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the decision, it was due to procedural grounds rather than the merits of the challenge. Ashcroft v. American Civil Liberties Union, 535 U.S. 564, 122 S. Ct. 1700, 152 L. Ed. 2d 771 (2002). On remand, the Third Circuit again affirmed the injunction, holding that that statute likely violated the First Amendment. American Civil Liberties Union v. Ashcroft, 322 F.3d 240 (3d Cir. 2003).

The questions raised in Reno and subsequent decisions have also been raised in the debate over the use of Internet filters. Many schools and libraries, both public and private, have installed filters that prevent users from viewing vulgar, obscene, pornographic, or other types of materials deemed unsuitable by the institution installing the software.

The ACLU, library associations, and other organizations that promote greater access to information have objected to the use of these filters, especially in public libraries. The first reported case involving libraries and Internet filters occurred in Mainstream Loudon v. Board of Trustees of the London County Library, 24 F. Supp. 2d 552 (E.D. Va. 1998). A Virginia federal court judge in that case ruled that the use of screening software by a library was unconstitutional, as it restricted adults to materials that the software found suitable for children. Courts have generally been split about his issue, and several have found that the use of these filters in public schools is allowed under the First Amendment.

Pornography is not the only concern of lawmakers and courts regarding potential crime on the Internet. The Internet has produced forms of terrorism that threaten the security of business, government, and private computers. Computer "hackers" have defeated computer network "firewalls" and have vandalized or stolen electronic data. Another form of terrorism is the propagation and distribution over the Internet of computer viruses that can corrupt computer software, hardware, and data files. Many companies now produce virus-checking software that seeks to screen and disable viruses when they arrive in the form of an e-mail or e-mail file attachment. However, computer hackers are constantly inventing new viruses, thus giving the viruses a window of time to wreak havoc before the virus checkers are updated. Moreover, the fear of viruses has led to hoaxes and panics.

One of the most infamous viruses, dubbed the Melissa virus, was created in 1999 by David Smith of New Jersey. It was sent through a Usenet newsgroup as an attachment to a message the purported to provide passwords for sexrelated web sites. When the attachment was opened, it infected the user's computer. The program found the user's address book and sent a mass message with attachments containing the virus. Within a few days, it had infected computers across the globe and forced the shutdown of more than 300 computer networks from the heavy loads of e-mail that Melissa generated.

The Melissa virus represented one of the first instances where law enforcement personnel were able to take advantage of new technologies to track the creator of the virus. On April 1, 1999, about a week after the virus first appeared on the Usenet newsgroups, police arrested Smith. He pled guilty to one count of computer fraud and abuse. He was sentenced to 20 months in prison and was fined $5,000.

Another area of legal concern is the issue of libel. In tort law, libel and slander occur when the communication of false information about a person injures the person's good name or reputation. Where the traditional media are concerned, it is well settled that libel suits provide both a means of redress for injury and a punitive corrective against sloppiness and malice. Regarding communication on the Internet, however, there is little case law, especially on the key issue of liability.

In suits against newspapers, courts traditionally held publishers liable, along with their reporters, because publishers were presumed to have reviewed the libelous material prior to publication. Because of this legal standard, publishers and editors are generally careful to review anything that they publish. However, the Internet is not a body of material that is carefully reviewed by a publisher, but an unrestricted flood of information. If a libelous or defamatory statement is posted on the Internet, which is owned by no one, the law is uncertain as to whether anyone other than the author can be held liable.

Some courts have held that online service providers, companies that connect their subscribers to the Internet, should be held liable if they allow their users to post libelous statements on their sites. An online provider is thus viewed like a traditional publisher.

Other courts have rejected the publisher analogy and instead have compared Internet service providers to bookstores. Like bookstores, providers are distributors of information and cannot reasonably be expected to review everything that they sell. U.S. libel law gives greater protection to bookstores because of this theory (Smith v. California, 361 U.S. 147, 80 S. Ct. 215, 4 L. Ed. 2d 205 [1959]), and some courts have applied it to online service providers.

trademark infringement on the Internet has also led to controversy and legal disputes. One of the biggest concerns for registered trademark and service mark holders is protection of the mark on the Internet. As Internet participants establish sites on the Web, they must create domain names, which are names that designate the location of the web site. Besides providing a name to associate with the person or business that created the site, a domain name makes it easy for Internet users to find a particular home page or web site.

As individuals and businesses devised domain names in this medium, especially during the mid to late 1990s, they found that the names they created were similar to, or replicas of, registered trademarks and service marks. Several courts have considered complaints that use of a domain name violated the rights of a trademark or service mark holder, and early decisions did not favor these parties' rights.

In 1999, Congress enacted the Anti-cyber-squatting Consumer Protection Act, Pub. L. No. 106-113, 113 Stat. 1501. The act strengthened the rights of trademark holders by giving these owners a cause of action against so-called "cybersquatters" or "cyberpirates," individuals who register a third-party's trademark as a domain name for the purpose of selling it back to the owner for a profit.

Prior to the enactment of this law, an individual could register a domain name using the trademark or service mark of a company, and the company would have to use a different domain name or pay the creator a sum of money for the right to use the name. Thus, for example, an individual could register the name, which most web users would have associated with International Business Machines (IBM), the universally recognized business. Because another individual used this domain name, IBM could not create a Web site using without paying the cyber-squatter a fee for its use. The 1999 legislation eradicated this problem.

During the 1990s, a number of companies were formed that operated completely on the Internet. Due to the overwhelming success of these companies, the media dubbed this phenomenon the "dot-com bubble." The success of these companies was relatively short-lived, as the "bubble" burst in early 2000. Many of these Internet companies went out of business, while those that remained had to reconsider new business strategies.

Notwithstanding these setbacks, the Internet itself has continued to develop and evolve. During the 1990s, the vast majority of Internet users relied upon telephone systems to log on to the Internet. This trend has changed drastically in recent years, as many users have subscribed to services that provide broadband access through such means as cable lines, satellite feeds, and other types of high-speed networks. These new methods for connecting to the Internet allow users to retrieve information at a much faster rate of speed. They will likely continue to change the types of content that are available through this means of telecommunications.

further readings

"ACLU Analysis of the Cox/Wyden Bill (HR 1978)." July 10, 1995. American Civil Liberties Union site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

"ACLU Cyber-Liberties Alert: Axe the Exon Bill!" April 29, 1995. American Civil Liberties Union site. Available online at <> (acccessed November 20, 2003).

"A Civil Liberties Ride on the Information Superhighway." 1994. Civil Liberties: The National Newsletter of the ACLU 380 (spring).

"Amicus Curiae Brief in re U.S. v. Jake Baker and Arthur Gonda, Crim. No. 95-80106, U.S. District Court Eastern District of Michigan Southern Division." April 26, 1995. American Civil Liberties Union site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Blanke, Jordan M. 2003."Minnesota Passes the Nation's First Internet Privacy Law." Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal 29 (summer).

"Can the Use of Cyberspace Be Governed?" 1995. Congressional Quarterly Researcher (June 30).

"Constitutional Problems with the Communications Decency Amendment: A Legislative Analysis by the EFF." June 16, 1995. Electronic Frontier Foundation site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

"Legislative Update: Pending State Legislation to Regulate Online Speech Content." April 17, 1995. American Civil Liberties Union site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Leiter, Richard A. 2003. "The Challenge of the Day: Permanent Public Access." Legal Information Alert 22 (February): 10.

Peck, Robert S. 2000. Libraries, the First Amendment, and Cyberspace: What You Need to Know. Chicago: American Library Association.

Peters, Robert. 2000. "'Marketplace of Ideas' or Anarchy: What Will Cyberspace Become?" Mercer Law Review 51 (spring): 909–17.

"Prodigy Stumbles as a Forum Again." Fall 1994. Electronic Frontier Foundation site. Available online at <> (accessed November 20, 2003).

Reed, Cynthia K., and Norman Solovay. 2003. The Internet and Dispute Resolution: Untangling the Web. New York: Law Journal Press.

Smith, Mark, ed. 2001. Managing the Internet Controversy. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Tsai, Daniel, and John Sullivan. 2003. "The Developing Law of Internet Jurisdiction." The Advocate 61 (July).


First Amendment; Freedom of Speech; Internet Fraud; Telecommunications; Trademarks.

The Internet

views updated Jun 11 2018

The Internet

The Internet is the world's largest computer network. It is a global information infrastructure comprising millions of computers organized into hundreds of thousands of smaller, local networks. The term information superhighway is sometimes used to describe the function that the Internet provides: an international, high-speed telecommunications network that offers open access to the general public.

The Internet provides a variety of services, including electronic mail (e-mail), the World Wide Web (WWW), Intranets, File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Telnet (for remote login to host computers), and various file-location services.


The idea for the Internet began in the early 1960s as a military network developed by the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). At first, it was a small network called ARPANET, which promoted the sharing of super-computers amongst military researchers in the United States. A few years later, DARPA began to sponsor research into a cooperative network of academic time-sharing computers. By 1969, the first ARPANET hosts were constructed at Stanford Research Institute, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), University of California Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah.

A second factor in growth was the National Science Foundation's NSFNET, built in 1986 for the purpose of connecting university computer science departments. NSFNET combined with ARPANET to form a huge backbone of network hosts. This backbone became what we now think of as the Internet (although the term Internet was used as early as 1982).

The explosive growth of the Internet came with major problems, particularly related to privacy and security in the digital world. Computer crime and malicious destruction became a paramount concern. One dramatic incident occurred in 1988 when a program called the Morris worm temporarily disabled approximately 10 percent of all Internet hosts across the country. The Computer Emergency Response Team (CERT) was formed in 1988 to address such security concerns.

In 1990, as the number of hosts approached 300,000, the ARPANET was decommissioned, leaving only the Internet with NSFNET as its sole backbone. The 1990s saw the commercialization of the Internet, made possible when the NSF lifted its restriction on commercial use and cleared the way for the age of electronic commerce.

Electronic commerce was further enhanced by new applications being introduced to the Internet. For example, programmers at the University of Minnesota developed the first point-and-click method of navigating Internet files in 1991. This program, which was freely distributed on the Internet, was called Gopher, and gave rise to similar applications such as Archie and Veronica.

An even more influential development, also started in the early 1990s, was Tim Berners-Lee's work on the World Wide Web, in which hypertext-formatted pages of words, pictures, and sounds promised to become an advertiser's dream come true. At the same time, Marc Andreessen and colleagues at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), located on the campus of University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, were developing a graphical browser for the World Wide Web called Mosaic (released in 1993), which would eventually evolve into Netscape.

By 1995, the Internet had become so commercialized that most access to the Internet was handled through Internet service providers (ISPs), such as America Online and Netcom. At that time, NSF relinquished control of the Internet, which was now dominated by Web traffic.

Partly motivated by the increased commercial interest in the Internet, Sun Microsystems released an Internet programming language called Java, which promised to radically alter the way applications and information can be retrieved, displayed, and used over the Internet.

By 1996, the Internet's twenty-fifth anniversary, there were 40 million Internet users; by 2002, that number had increased to 531 million, and by 2006 the number of Web users was roughly 750 million. Internet-based electronic commerce has reached major proportions as well, totalling roughly $140 million in revenue in the United States alone in 2007. This number continues to rise steadily throughout the 2000s.


Bandwidth is the capacity of a particular pathway to transmit information for online purposes. It is bandwidth that controls how fast Web sites download. In analog settings (such as dial-up), bandwidth is measured by frequency, the difference between the highest and lowest frequencies, expressed in Hertz. Digital lines measure bandwidth in bits/bytes per second (the amount of information transferred every second). Companies often determine and set the amount of bandwidth allowed for certain activities, an activity called bandwidth allocation.


There are many types of Internet connections, which have changed in sophistication and speed throughout the Internet's history. The first kind is the analog connection, or dial-up, one of the cheapest and slowest ways to connect. The computer dials a phone number to access the network and the modem can convert the data to either format, as required. This analog format is the slowest connection, and the one most subject to quality issues. ISDN, or integrated services digital network, is the international format for normal phone-related Internet connections. B-ISDN is a more recent format for other phone connections, such as fiber optics.

DSL is a constant connection that will take up the phone line the way an analog connection does. There are two main types of DSLADSL, which is used most commonly in America, and SDSL, which can transmit a larger amount of information and is more often found in Europe.

Others receive Internet through cable, a broadband connection that operates through TV lines. Certain TV channels are used to take and receive Internet information, and since these coaxial cable connections can handle a much higher rate of data than phone lines, cable Internet service tends to be faster.

Wireless Internet is also becoming popularconnecting computers to the Internet through radio-wave transmissions. This requires a wireless hub or router that transmits information into radio waves, but the connection can be accessed from anywhere in the radius of the broadcast.


Electronic mail, or e-mail, is the most widely used function used on the Internet today. Millions of messages are passed via Internet lines every day throughout the world. Compared to postal service, overnight delivery companies, and telephone conversations, e-mail via the Internet is extremely cost-effective and fast. E-mail facilities include sending and receiving messages, the ability to broadcast messages to several recipients at once, storing and organizing messages, forwarding messages to other interested parties, maintaining address books of e-mail partners, and even transmitting files (called attachments) along with messages.

Internet e-mail messages are sent to an e-mail address. The structure of an e-mail address is as follows: PersonalID@DomainName

The personal identifier could be a person's name or some other way to uniquely identify an individual. The domain is an indicator of the location of that individual, and appears to the right of the at (@) sign. A domain name is the unique name of a collection of computers that are connected to the Internet, usually owned by or operated on behalf of a single organization (company, school, or agency) that owns the domain name. The domain name consists of two or more sections, each separated by a period.

From right-to-left, the portions of the domain name are more general to more specific in terms of location. In the United States, the rightmost portion of a domain is typically one of the following:

  • comindicating a commercial enterprise
  • eduindicating an educational institution
  • govindicating a governmental body
  • milindicating a military installation
  • netindicating a network resource
  • orgindicating a nonprofit organization

In non-U.S. countries, the rightmost portion of a domain name is an indicator of the geographic origin of the domain. For example, Canadian e-mail addresses end with the abbreviation ca.


The World Wide Web (WWW) is a system and a set of standards for providing a graphic user interface (GUI) to Internet communications. The Web is the single most important factor in the popularity of the Internet, because it makes the technology easy to use and gives attractive and entertaining presentation to users.

Graphics, text, audio, animation, and video can be combined on Web pages to create dynamic and highly interactive access to information. In addition, Web pages can be connected to each other via hyperlinks. These hyperlinks are visible to the user as highlighted text, underlined text, or images that the user can click to access another Web page.

Browsers. Web pages are available to users via Web browsers, such as Mozilla/Firefox, Apple's Safari, Opera, or Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Browsers are programs that run on the user's computer and provide the interface that displays the graphics, text, and hyperlinks to the user. Browsers recognize and interpret the programming language called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). HTML includes the ability to format and display text; size and position graphics images for display; invoke and present animation or video clips; and run small programs, called applets, for more complex interactive operations. Browsers also implement the hyperlinks and allow users to connect to any Web page they want.

Search Engines. Sometimes a user knows what information she needs, but does not know the precise Web page that she wants to view. A subject-oriented search can be accomplished with the aid of search engines, which are tools that can locate Web pages based on a search criterion established by the user. By far, Google is the most commonly used search engine.

Blogs. The ease with which users can publish their own information using the World Wide Web has created an opportunity for everyone to be a publisher. An outcome from this is that every topic, hobby, niche, and fetish now has a thriving community of like-minded people. The ease of publishing information on the Web became easier with the advent of Web logs or blogs, online diaries that opened the floodgates to an even greater level of individual participation in information sharing and community.


A Uniform Resource Locator (URL) is a networked extension of the standard filename concept. It allows the user to point to a file in a directory on any machine on the Internet. In addition to files, URLs can point to queries, documents stored deep within databases, and many other entities. Primarily, however, URLs are used to identify and locate Web pages.

A URL is composed of three parts:

Protocol. This is the first part of the address. In a Web address, the letters http stand for Hypertext Transfer Protocol, signifying how this request should be dealt with. The protocol information is followed by a colon. URL protocols usually take one of the following types:

  • httpfor accessing a Web page
  • ftpfor transferring a file via FTP
  • filefor locating a file on the client's own machine
  • gopherfor locating a Gopher server
  • mailfor submitting e-mail across the Internet
  • newsfor locating a Usenet newsgroup

Resource Name. This is the name of the server/machine at which the query should be directed. For an http request, the colon is followed by two forward slashes, and this indicates that the request should be sent to a machine.

Path and File Name. The rest of a URL specifies the particular computer name, any directory tree information, and a file name, with the latter two pieces of information being optional for Web pages. The computer name is the domain name or a variation on it (on the Web, the domain is most commonly preceded by a machine prefix www to identify the computer that is functioning as the organization's Web server, as opposed to its e-mail server, etc.).

If a particular file isn't located at the top level of the directory structure (as organized and defined by whoever sets up the Web site), there may be one or more strings of text separated by slashes, representing the directory hierarchy.

Finally, the last string of text to the right of the rightmost slash is the individual file name; on the Web, this often ends with the extension htm or html to signify it's an HTML document. When no directory path or file name is specified (e.g., the URL, the browser is typically pointed automatically to an unnamed (at least from the user's perspective) default or index page, which often constitutes an organization's home or start page.

Thus, a full URL with a directory path and file name may look something like this:

Lastly, a Web URL might also contain, somewhere to the right of the domain name, a long string of characters that does not correspond to a traditional directory path or file name, but rather is a set of commands or instructions to a server program or database application. The syntax of these URLs depends on the underlying software program being used. Sometimes these can function as reusable URLs (e.g., they can be bookmarked and retrieved repeatedly), but other times they must be generated by the site's server at the time of use, and thus can't be retrieved directly from a bookmark or by typing them in manually.

Spam. Commercial abuse of e-mail continues to be problematic as companies attempt to e-mail millions of online users in bulk. This technique is called spam, (so named after a skit by the comedy troupe Monty Python that involved the continuous repetition of the word). Online users are deluged with a massive amount of unwanted e-mail selling a wide array of products and services. Spam has become a network-wide problem as it impacts information transfer time and overall network load. Several organizations and governments are attempting to solve the spam problem through legislation or regulation.

Viruses. Computer viruses spread by e-mail have also grown as the Internet has grown. The widespread use of e-mail and the growing numbers of new, uninformed computer users has made it very easy to spread malicious viruses across the network. Security issues for both personal computers and for network servers will continue to be a crucial aspect of the ongoing development of the Internet and World Wide Web.


Intranets are private systems, contained within servers owned by companies. They are based on the same principles that govern the Internet but are not widely available; instead, they are used only for communicating and transferring company information between employees. Companies utilize intranets to protect valuable information from outside access, creating them with layers of protection in place. Because intranet systems are private, they do not suffer from some of the problems the Internet faces, such as speed-related performance issues from too many users trying to access the same sites. Companies can place multimedia presentations on their systems more easily, showing presentations and running training programs for employees.

Company uses for intranet systems are varied, including procedural manuals, employee benefit resources, orientation programs, software and hardware instructions, and even company social networks or e-zine postings. Intranets can also be constructed for a company's specific needs, tailored in functions and appearance. They can include simple files of information, such as spreadsheets or word documents. They can also incorporate search engines that employees can use to find particular components or analyze sets of data. Many also provide links to the Internet and relevant Web sites.


VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, is a developing technology allowing users to access audio communication through their Internet settings. The Internet line sends voice transmissions in the form of data packets, like all other types of information stored in servers, which are then changed in audio on a receiving phone system. Users of VoIP benefit by not having to pay for separate phone and Internet services. Beyond the software and hardware required to set up VoIP, companies usually do not need to pay for more than their normal Internet service.

The most important factors in VoIP service are audio quality and accessibility. VoIP can be provided by many different companies, including CoolTalk, Vonage, and Phone Power, but companies should always be sure to conduct tests of the audio quality to ensure it is as good as normal phone service. Also, some companies may prefer to have a back-up system installed in case of emergencies, such as Internet shut-downs or power outages.


Social networks have become increasingly popular in the past few years with the rise of such Web sites as MySpace and Facebook, where Internet users can create their own profiles and structure personal Web sites in online communities. Thanks to the ease of Internet communication, participants can form friendships and spread information at a high speed across a vast area. Businesses can make use of these social networks in several ways.

Many social networks employ widgets, or embedded advertisements, often in the form of rich media. These interactive advertisements can be posted along the edges of the Web sites and can serve as both marketing and analyzing tools. By making an animated advertisement that can be clicked on or interacted with, a business can judge how attractive the advertisement is through programs designed to collect widget data. Because social networks spread information so quickly, businesses can also use them as platforms to propagate their messages and brand. Some companies have their own MySpace sites to use for marketing purposes, trying a more personal form of promotion that many social network users find honest. Other organizations are beginning to view social networks as an effective way to recruit new employees.


Mobile, handheld computer devices are very common in today's business world. PDAs, which offer online interaction and note-taking abilities, are being increasingly replaced by smartphones, which are phones configured to offer the same services, including connection to the Internet, e-mail, and document programs. While many companies are eager to offer these mobile devices to their employees as a communication tool, only some are currently taking advantage of handhelds as a marketing tool. Websites can be configured to the mini-browsers smart-phones rely on, giving those using handheld devices easier access to online information and advertisements. The primary problem cited with smartphones and PDAs is security, since they are not affected by companies' intranet or Internet protections.


E-commerce can take many different forms. Some companies use a click and mortar system where they operate stores or factories in physical locations while also offering their products in an online store where orders can be made. Other companies have a central, physical hub and warehouses from which they conduct a large amount of business over the Internet without other bases, such as Some companies exist by offering purely online services with only a central office, such as eBay.

A company's online store can be constructed to help customers personally, by keeping track of what they view, what they order, and offering similar products that they may be interested in. This is called personalization, and the ability to offer each customer their own experience every time they access the company Web site is a powerful marketing tool. It is also important for companies to consistently update their online stores to reflect their changing services or merchandise, including deals and discounts. The interface companies use is also importanthow the Web site looks and reacts to customers, especially in response to searches and guided navigation.


The current quality of web cams allows companies to transfer video images in real time, letting them use the Internet to video-conference. Some companies are beginning to use video-messaging, a service that often accompanies instant messaging. This technology works for one-on-one meetings and conferences involving multiple attendees.

SEE ALSO Computer Networks; Computer Security; Electronic Commerce; Electronic Data Interchange and Electronic Funds Transfer


Bandwidth Shaping. Webopedia. Jupiter Media Corporation, 2008.

Berners-Lee, Tim. Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. New York: HarperBusiness, 2000.

Chung, Joe. The Red Queen of E-commerce. Ecommerce Times, 2008.

The Difference Between VoIP and PSTN Systems. Webopedia. Jupiter Media Corporation, 2008.

Grauer, Robert, and Gretchen Marx. Essentials of the Internet. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1997.

Hafner, Katie. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origin of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Intranet Corner. Intranet Journal, 2008. Available from:

Kalakota, Ravi, and Andrew B. Whinston. Electronic Commerce: A Manager's Guide. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

Types of Internet Connections. Webopedia. Jupiter Media Corporation, 2008.


views updated May 23 2018



Although the origins of the Internet can be traced to the 1960s with the founding of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) by the US Department of Defense, the medium's significance for the film industry began with the proliferation of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s. Before the development of the Web, Internet use was limited to text-based communication by a relatively small number of people over slow modem connections. Since the late 1990s, however, high-speed access through Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and cable modems into US homes has opened up possibilities for promoting and distributing digitized films and videos over the Internet to a mass audience.


In the summer of 1995, media and advertising executives announced that the Internet had become the "new frontier" in film promotion. Marketing Batman Forever (1995), Warner Bros. was the first to promote a major feature film using a Website as the campaign's center-piece. The Web address (or URL) was included on posters, print and television advertisements, and radio spots, and the Batman Forever logo appeared with the URL without elaboration at bus and train stations. The film's Website offered a hypertextual narrative that linked to plot twists and hidden pages for users to discover by correctly answering a series of concealed questions posed by the Riddler, one of the film's main characters. The Batman Forever Website also cross-promoted ancillary products from its sister companies, including the soundtrack recording and music videos.

In June 1995 Universal Pictures partnered with leading Internet service providers American Online and CompuServe to present the first live interactive multisystem simulcast to promote a film on the Web with Apollo 13 star Tom Hanks and director Ron Howard before the premiere. The Website later included special Internet video greetings from some of the film's stars and digital still pictures from the film's Los Angeles premiere. Another notable early example of Internet promotion was the Website for Mars Attacks! (1996), by Warner Bros., which included an original fifteen-minute Internet "radio play" about a truck driver who evades Martians while attempting to deliver the only print of Mars Attacks! in time for the premiere. In late 1996, the Star Trek: First Contact Website received over 30 million hits during its first week of release, at that point the largest traffic ever for a film Website, and by the end of 1996, movie trailers, digitized stills, actor and filmmaker profiles, and computer screensavers were available online for almost every major film released. Web addresses were also commonly included in theatrical trailers, TV commercials, print advertisements, and posters. In 1997 studios were spending approximately $10,000 to produce an independent film's Website and at least $250,000 for blockbuster studio films, which accounted for an extremely small portion of the overall promotional budget.

In 1999 studios began to coordinate Website tie-ins with pay-per-view orders, allowing viewers to "play along" at home through synchronized Web content. Viewers who purchased the December 1999 pay-perview release of New Line Cinema's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me were offered an interactive television experience synchronized over the Web. For the DVD release of The Matrix (1999), Warner Bros. scheduled a synchronized screening and Internet chat session with the film's directors. In 1999 Apple Computer launched its very popular movie trailer Web page to promote its QuickTime video software, receiving over 30 million downloads for the Web-based trailers for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (1999) alone.

Throughout 1999, the major studios also established online retail stores in partnership with their studios' other Web operations. Increasingly since the 1980s, the film studios have become part of larger transnational media conglomerates that often have holdings in other industry sectors. The Web is thus inordinately well suited to this structure of convergence and integration, providing a retail and cross-promotional portal to sister and parent company products, services, and subsidiary media outlets.


The Blair Witch Project (1999) was one of the most profitable films in history when measured by its return on the initial investment. Made for approximately $50,000 and grossing over $100 million in US theatrical box-office alone, this financial victory of a low-budget independent film over the major studio blockbusters instigated a paradigm panic among Hollywood executives due in large part to the important role of the Internet in the film's commercial success. When the mainstream film industry had already begun to create content specific to the Web, Internet promotion was still considered to be supplementary to established media outlets, and the theatrical film was still the main component of the brand or franchise. For The Blair Witch Project, however, the Web became the central medium or the primary text for the film's narrative and its reception, as well as its marketing or "franchising" beginning more than a year before the film's major theatrical distribution. In this sense, the Web functioned in the 1990s for The Blair Witch Project in the same way that newspapers and magazines did in relation to the earliest commercial cinema in the 1890s by playing a primary role in the film's narrative and its meaning for the audience.

Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez originally launched The Blair Witch Project Website in June 1998 on their production company's Website, When the independent distributor, Artisan Entertainment, bought The Blair Witch Project for $1.1 million from directors Myrick and Sánchez at the Sundance Film Festival in January 1999, the company envisioned exploiting the medium of the Web to compensate for its relative lack of funds for promotion. On April Fool's Day, Artisan relaunched The Blair Witch Project Website with additional material, including footage presented as outtakes from "discovered" film reels, police reports, the "back story" on missing film students, and a history or mythology of the Blair Witch legend. The next day Artisan sent 2,000 The Blair Witch Project screensavers to journalists and premiered its trailers on the "Ain't It Cool News" Website instead of on television or in theaters.

Although the low-budget or "no budget" quality of The Blair Witch Project became an integral part of the film's marketing strategy, shortly after acquiring the distribution rights to The Blair Witch Project Artisan spent $1.5 million on Web promotion as part of its $20 million campaign (a significantly greater percentage of the promotional budget than mainstream studio films). Resonating with the film's "mockumentary" style, at the heart of the Web campaign was the blurring of the boundaries between actual and fictional documents through additional "evidence" on the Web and the omission of any explicit admission or demarcation of the promotional material as fiction or as promotional advertising. In addition to the official Blair Witch Project Website, unofficial Websites and fan pages elaborated the film's mythology and offered original narratives. Hundreds of Blair Witch Project video parodies were distributed through the Web, and several of the film's detractors launched an anti–Blair Witch Project Web ring that included a Web page created by a group of citizens from Burkittsville, Maryland, "to explain to the world that Burkittsville was being harmed by a fictional movie set in [their] town." Debates about the film's authenticity filled Web boards, Usenet newsgroups, and online chat rooms.

In an attempt to differentiate its promotion, the May 2001 Internet campaign for the film Artificial Intelligence: A.I. adopted The Blair Witch Project's strategy of passing off fictional Web material as the real thing, when the marketers integrated several Websites with hundreds of pages and days' worth of material that mimicked the aesthetic of real sites, such as the Website for the fictional Bangalore World University. These Websites contributed to a larger pretend Evan Chan murder mystery that complemented the film and took place in the future after the film's narrative. These fictional Websites were updated daily and, like the Web campaign for The Blair Witch Project, none revealed that they were part of a marketing campaign for A.I. Similarly, in August 2001 director Kevin Smith constructed a fake Website bashing his own film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, replete with fictional testimonials and video from crew members. Many fans mistook it for the real thing and posted emails to the site's creator. For the most part, these attempts to recreate the same kind of marketing success and financial return of The Blair Witch Project have been unsuccessful, and it remains an important and exceptional case in film history. Largely abandoning attempts to manufacture authentic word-of-mouth (or word-of-text) interest for their films, it is now common for the major studios to hire agencies and pay employees and fans (or "street teams") to promote films and to spread positive word of mouth online in chat rooms, movie review sites, and discussion boards.

The failure or success of a Web campaign depends in large part upon the target audience and the film's genre. Indeed, many of the examples included here are from genres that appeal to boys and young men, a demographic that comprises a large portion of overall Internet users. To offer another example from the fantasy genre, in 2001 the Wall Street Journal maintained that the Website for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings was the most elaborate and visited to date, offering audio and video clips in ten languages, an interactive map of Middle Earth, chat rooms, screensavers, interviews with members of the cast and crew, and links to some of the thousands of existing fan sites. In 2004, the narrative for the Matrix trilogy was extended beyond the final filmic installment, Matrix Revolutions, inthe form of The Matrix Online, a video game that also uses the Internet to allow thousands of Matrix fans to role-play within and to develop the film's fictional world.

While the Matrix is a deliberate example of franchising a brand across different media, films also live on beyond their official narratives through creative fan communities, such as the thousands of pages of online fiction that continue the storyline of Titanic (see and hundreds of other films (see, or the active online culture surrounding the Star Wars and Star Trek films that includes online writings, artwork, games, and fan films or videos. When Lucasfilm threatened legal action against a teenage college student for creating one of the earliest and most visited Star Wars fan Websites, other fans deluged Lucasfilm with angry emails, prompting Lucasfilm to apologize to its fans for the "miscommunication" in a letter posted on the Web. Lucasfilm has since created an official partnership with the Website to distribute the many Star Wars videos and films produced by fans.


The Internet quickly became a significant retail outlet for the distribution or sale of DVD releases, and by 2001 all of the major film companies had partnered with the Internet Movie Database, or IMDb (, and leading online retailer to promote new theatrical films, personalize movie showtimes, and sell DVDs. In October 1990, IMDb started as the Usenet newsgroup bulletin board rec.arts.movies to which volunteers would post information about films and discuss movies with other fans. With the advent of the Web, the bulletin board was transformed into one of the most visited sites on the Internet, averaging over 30 million visitors each month and containing over 6 million individual film credits, including information on over 400,000 films, 1 million actors and actresses, and 100,000 directors. The IMDb has also built a strong sense of community among its almost 9 million registered users, who can post to the public discussion forum available for each film and rate a film between 1 and 10. All of this information lends itself to the customized links available for celebrity news and gossip, images of stars, box-office and sales statistics, and for DVD purchases.

In addition to providing easy access to detailed information about films and convenient ways for consumers to purchase DVDs, the Internet also provides a distribution method for alternative or independent fictional films and documentaries. The technical and economic advantages of digitization and online distribution have benefited academics and researchers through the availability of digitized film archives like the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection and the Internet Archive's Movie Archive, which includes the Prelinger Archives. The Internet also serves as a significant medium of distribution for multimedia art, Flash movies, film parodies, home movies or videos, and animated political cartoons. In addition, the distribution and sale of pornographic films and videos online totaled over $1 billion in 2005 and comprised a large portion of total Internet file-sharing volume.

Due to technical limitations of bandwidth and connection speeds as well as legal obstacles surrounding the Internet rights to distribute Hollywood films, the independent "short" has become one of the most common categories of film distributed online, including a large selection of animated shorts. One of the most popular sites for viewing online films is, which launched "AtomFilms Studio" in January 2006 to fund independent producers looking to create short films specifically for Internet broadband distribution. In 2005, in addition to streaming content,'s major competitor,, expanded its distribution methods to deliver video-on-demand (VOD) to cellular smart-phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs).

In 2001 BMW premiered its eight-part online promotional series of big-budget, short action films titled The Hire, made by such established international film directors as David Fincher, John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Guy Ritchie, Kar Wai Wong, Alejandro González Iñárritu, and John Woo, and such stars as Clive Owen, Stellan Skarsgård, Madonna, Forest Whitaker, and Gary Oldman. On its Website, BMW boasted that the films had been viewed over 100 million times before they were removed from the site in 2005, despite the fact that the films were released on DVD in 2003.

Although technical and infrastructural obstacles related to bandwidth and video quality and size may be overcome, Internet copyright issues, Internet distribution rights, and Internet release time "windows"—which traditionally go from theaters, video/DVD, pay-per-view, premium cable, network television, and basic cable—have also complicated online distribution. For instance, the major rights holders (that is, Hollywood studios and entertainment conglomerates) have prevented companies like Netflix from shifting their distribution and rental methods to on-demand streaming and downloading over the Web, although the online DVD-by-mail rental service is still one of the more profitable Web ventures, ending 2005 with about 4.2 million subscribers and sales approaching $1 billion.

Responding to increased consumer demand, and in response to the fact that only 15 percent of worldwide Hollywood film revenues come from box-office profits, and that two-thirds of the income for the six major studios now comes from the home theater divisions, the majors have begun to pursue their own online distribution options by offering feature-length films already available on DVD for legal downloading, including MovieLink (, a joint venture of MGM, Paramount, Sony, Universal, and Warner Bros.; and CinemaNow (, financed in part by Lions Gate and Cisco Systems. In December 2005, Apple Computer also began to distribute animated short films from Pixar (co-owned by Apple CEO Steve Jobs), Disney-ABC television programs, and music videos through its popular iTunes music download service. While no feature-length films are included in Apple's library, the January 2006 purchase of Pixar by Disney may facilitate the distribution of Disney's feature films through Apple's service.

By the end of the summer of 2005, industry analysts and mainstream news outlets were announcing the "death of the movie theater" as industry figures and independent film companies began to question and challenge traditional film release windows. Director and producer Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape [1989], Traffic [2000], Erin Brockovich [2000], Oceans Eleven [2001]) entered into an agreement with 2929 Entertainment, HDNet Films, and Landmark Theatres to produce and direct six films to be released simultaneously to theaters, DVD home video, and on HDNet high-definition cable and satellite channels. For the 26, January 2006, "stacked release" of the first film from that venture, Bubble, 2929 Entertainment agreed to share 1 percent of the home video DVD profits with theater owners who exhibited the film. Another new distribution model of simultaneous releases was announced in July 2005 by, a Web venture between Intel Corp. and Revelations Entertainment, co-founded by actor Morgan Freeman. ClickStar will offer legal downloading of original feature films before they are released on DVD and while they are still in first-run theaters. Freeman's considerable star power, which he is lending to several of the ClickStar films, may give a film enough exposure through its Web release to be distributed through other media, like cable television.

It remains to be seen whether or not the major studios will welcome these new methods of exhibition and release windows for distribution. History suggests that the mainstream entertainment corporations will resist this model since it would change the established profit-making system. Even if video-on-demand over the Web becomes widely adopted, like the rapid adoption of television by consumers in the 1950s and 1960s, predictions about the impending death of the movie theater may be exaggerated or misguided. The film and entertainment industries have a long history of appropriating newly established models of production, distribution, and exhibition, as well as purchasing independent companies that pose a significant threat, as the acquisition of many formerly independent studios by the Hollywood majors attests. In addition, the same companies that own the major film production, distribution, and exhibition outlets are horizontally and vertically integrated companies that already have oligopolies in many of the other media sectors that will distribute these films in the future, including television, cable, and the Internet.

SEE ALSO Distribution;Fans and Fandom;Independent Film;Publicity and Promotion;Technology;Video Games


Castonguay, James. "The Political Economy of the 'Indie Blockbuster': Intermediality, Fandom, and The Blair Witch Project." In Nothing That Is: Millennial Cinema and the Blair Witch Controversies, edited by Sarah L. Higley and Jeffrey A. Weinstock, 65–85. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

CNET News.

Finn, A., Simpson, N., McFadyen, S., and C. Hoskins. "Marketing Movies on the Internet: How Does Canada Compare to the U.S.?" Canadian Journal of Communication [Online], 25(3). (March 28, 2006).

Gauntlett, David. "The Web Goes to the Pictures." In Web.Studies: Rewiring Media Studies for the Digital Age, edited by David Gauntlett, 81–87. Cambridge, UK and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Hofacker, Charles F. Internet Marketing, 3rd ed. New York: Wiley, 2001.

Roberts, Graham. "Movie-making in the New Media Age." In Web.Studies, 2nd ed., edited by David Gauntlett and Ross Horsley, 103–113. New York and London: Arnold, 2004.


Wired News.

James Castonguay


views updated May 09 2018


A worldwide telecommunications network of business, government, and personal computers.

Eleventh Circuit Dismisses Appeal Regarding the Application of the ADA to the Internet

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2004 dismissed an appeal brought by a visually-impaired man who had unsuccessfully challenged a Web site because it was allegedly not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The case before the district court in 2002 was the first of its kind and demonstrated that the application of the ADA was not without limits. On the other hand, advocates for the disabled continue to argue that the application of the ADA should extend to the World Wide Web.

With the enactment of the ADA, Pub. L. No. 101-336, 104 Stat. 327 (codified at 42 U.S.C. §§12101 et seq. ), Congress provided a "clear and comprehensive national mandate for the elimination of discrimination against individuals with disabilities." In the years that followed the ADA's promulgation, use of the Internet exploded. A number of advocates suggested that the ADA should apply to Web sites, as well as physical places, such that operators of Web sites should be required to design the sites in a manner that disabled persons could use them. Several state and local governments began to require governmental entities to develop sites that allowed access to disabled users.

A statement issued in 1996 by the Justice Department bolstered the arguments regarding the ADA's application to the Internet. According to this statement, "Covered entities [under the ADA] that use the Internet for communications regarding their programs, goods, or services must be prepared to offer those communications through accessible means." The department has also issued a series of documents that provide instruction about how state and local governments can make their Web sites accessible.

Southwest Airlines established the first Internet page of any U.S. airline in 1996. As the site grew and progressed, it began to offer many more features. By 2002, users could check schedules and fares, book reservations, identify discounts and special rates, and locate similar types of information. Southwest reported that during one quarter in 2002, nearly half of its revenue was generated through its online bookings.

Robert Gumson suffers from a visual disability and is unable to use a mouse or a monitor. In order to use the Web, he relies on a "screen reader," a software program that converts text and graphics into speech that he can hear. Web sites must contain a number of features in order for Gumson's software to work properly. If a site uses graphics that are not labeled with a textual description, for instance, then the software cannot recognize any text that appear in the graphic and cannot communicate anything about the graphic to the user.

Southwest's Web site was one that Gumson's software could not "read." Gumson and Access Now, Inc., a nonprofit advocacy group for disabled persons, sued Southwest in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment that Southwest violated several of the ADA's provisions. The plaintiffs wanted the court to enjoin Southwest from continuing to violate the ADA by requiring it to make the site accessible to the blind.

At the trial level, the Gumson and Access Now argued that, the airline's Web site, was itself a "place of public accommodation" as defined in the ADA. The ADA includes a list of places of public accommodation, including, for example, hotels, museums, libraries, schools, day care centers, and bowling alleys. 42 U.S.C. §12181(7). Each of places in the list corresponds with a distinct type of physical location. Southwest filed a motion to dismiss the case, asserting that the Web site did not meet the definition under the ADA.

The district court agreed with Southwest. The court ruled specifically that the Internet site was not a place of public accommodation and that the plaintiffs had failed to establish any type of "nexus" between the site and a "physical, concrete place of public accommodation." Because the Web site did not fall within this definition, the court dismissed the case. Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines, Co., 227 F. Supp. 2d 1312 (S.D. Fla. 2002).

The plaintiffs appealed the decision to the Eleventh Circuit. On appeal, Gumson and Access Now attempted to develop a new strategy. Instead of arguing that was itself a place of public accommodation, the plaintiffs asserted that Southwest Airlines as a whole was such a place. Since Southwest Airlines as a whole operated a travel service, the plaintiffs argued, it should fall under the application of the ADA. Because the airline's Web site was part of such a travel service, the plaintiffs asserted that the site should be compliant with the ADA.

The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs could not change their argument on appeal. According to the court's opinion, the plaintiffs' approach "presented a very different theory, one wholly distinct from the complaint and the arguments presented below." The plaintiffs likewise did not attempt to reargue the points made at the district court (i.e., that the Web site itself was a place of public accommodation), but rather relied solely on these new arguments. The court said that it was not proper to consider these points that were not raised at the trial level and dismissed the appeal. Access Now, Inc. v. Southwest Airlines Co., 385 F.3d 1324 (11th Cir. 2004).

The decision of the district court was consistent with the few decisions involving the question of whether the ADA applies to Web sites. In 2003, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that the ADA did not apply to Internet chat rooms. Noah v. AOL Time Warner, 261 F. Supp. 2d 532 (E.D. Va. 2003). On the other hand, groups continue to advocate for the extension of the ADA to the Internet through additional federal legislation, and the possibility remains that a plaintiff could successfully argue in court that a business should be bound by the ADA in the operation of the Web site of the business.

Legal Victories in Antispam Fights

In November and December 2004 and in January 2005, a Virginia prosecutor, a small business, and a large company, all scored legal victories in battles against "spam," or unsolicited bulk e-mail.

U.S. District Judge Charles Wolle imposed $1.08 billion in damages upon three spammers in Iowa in December 2004. The judgment is believed to be the largest damage award of its kind. It was awarded to Robert Kramer, the owner of CIS Internet Services, an Internet service provider (ISP) based in Clinton, Iowa. Kramer sued for damages when his 5,000 customers received millions of pieces of spam between August and December 2003.

The judge ordered Cash Link Systems of Florida to pay Kramer $360 million; AMP Dollar Savings of Arizona to pay him $720 million; and TEI Marketing Group of Florida to pay him $140,000. The case was built upon an Iowa antispam law and U.S. racketeering laws. For every spam message sent, the Iowa law allows damages of $10, plus punitive damages .

Kramer's lawyer said that his client does not expect to collect the entire judgment but that he hopes to cover his actual injuries caused by the spam, which he said he said totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars. The judgment was a default judgment . The judge entered the judgment in favor of Kramer after the defendants failed to appear or answer the lawsuit in court.

Kramer stated that said Cash Link Systems sent his ISP 60,000 pieces of spam per day, while AMP Dollar Savings's total was double that amount. TEI Marketing sent the ISP 1,400 total messages. According to Kramer, a total of about 300 spammers clogged his inbound mail servers with more than 10 million spam messages every day.

Technology experts have expressed differing opinions as to whether the judgment will deter spammers. A spokesperson for the Spam-Con Foundation, an antispam group, said that many spammers are based in Florida, where laws make it easy for them to declare bankruptcy, yet keep many of their assets. Both TEI and Cash Link are based in Florida. Moreover, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) froze the assets of Cash Link Systems in July 2004 for an alleged fraudulent scheme involving "cashless" automated teller machines. Other industry experts were more optimistic that spammers would be deterred by the judgment.

The impact of the decision may be further limited because it came about before the implementation of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, Pub. L. No. 108-187, §9, 117 Stat. 2699, a federal law that took effect January 1, 2004. CAN-SPAM ("Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act") requires that unsolicited commercial e-mail messages be labeled and that they include opt-out instructions and the sender's physical address.

In another case, Earthlink, a major ISP, prevailed against two men who ran a spam-distribution ring from EarthLink's network. The case, which began in August 2003, ended with a January 2005 settlement against Damon DeCrescenzo and David Burstyn. The two have agreed to stop sending spam messages. They also have agreed to pay Earthlink an undisclosed amount of damages. Earthlink charged that the men were part of an operation that allegedly sent 250 million spam messages touting Viagra, herbal supplements, dating services, and sales of spamming software. Earthlink alleged that the spammers had committed identity theft, forgery, and other crimes to carry out their scheme.

Earthlink brought the lawsuit in federal district court in Atlanta, where it is based. The spammers, however, earned the nickname of the "Alabama Spam Ring" because they often used phone lines in the Birmingham, Alabama, area to connect to Earthlink accounts. The lawsuit is ongoing; more than a dozen defendants remain in the case.

SpamHaus Project, a nonprofit spammonitoring group, ranked DeCrescenzo as one of the world's top spammers. SpamHaus has also called Florida "the world's spam capital" because spammers view the state's laws as conducive to their operations.

At least three dozen states have enacted antispam laws. In November 2004, prosecutors in Virginia obtained the nation's first felony spam conviction. The defendant, Jeremy Jaynes, was another of the world's top spammers, according to SpamHaus. Jaynes, age 30, peddled pornography and other products and might have sent as many as 10 million pieces of e-mail per day. Prosecutors said that he had grossed as much as $750,000 per month through his business and that he had used false Internet addresses and aliases to send mass e-mail ads via an America Online (AOL) server in Loudoun County, Virginia. AOL is based in Virginia.

Following an eight-day trial, the jury convicted Jaynes and recommended a nine-year sentence. In April 2005, the judge accepted that recommendation but stayed the imposition of the sentence while the case is appealed. Jaynes, who is from North Carolina, was charged under a Virginia law that took effect just weeks before he was charged. His attorney has said that he plans to appeal as to both the constitutionality of the law and whether it is applicable to Jaynes.

Pennsylvania Anti-Child Pornography Law Found Unconstitutional

In September 2004, a federal district judge struck down Pennsylvania's 2002 law requiring Internet service providers (ISPs) to disable or block access to child-pornography web sites. The law also imposed criminal sanctions on ISPs that failed to comply. Center for Democracy & Technology v. Pappert, 337 F. Supp. 2d 606 (E.D. Pa. 2004), the district court ruled that the Internet Child Pornography Act, 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§7621-7630, failed to pass constitutional muster under First Amendment and Commerce Clause challenges. In summary, because the act blocked access to legitimate Internet content far outside of the state, it could not be viewed as the least restrictive means for furthering a legitimate governmental interest under the First Amendment. Moreover, because the act involved Internet communications, it necessarily and substantially affected interstate commerce, prohibited under the Dormant Commerce Clause of the Constitution as well.

The act, as written, required any ISP to remove or disable access to child pornography content "residing on or accessible through its service," within five days after being notified by the Pennsylvania attorney general. The law further provided that the attorney general would first have to obtain a court order permitting the removal or block. Pennsylvania's law was the first attempt by a state to impose criminal liability on the ISP for providing access through its network. In September 2002, the first order under the new law was issued, directing WorldCom, Inc., of Mississippi, to deny access to five child-pornography sites using WorldCom as a provider. Because of the technological design of Inernet communications, and although the order only affected Pennsylvania, the effect was to cause WorldCom to block those sites from all of its subscribers in all states.

Three plaintiffs joined in filing suit challenging the law: the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a think tank; the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); and PlantageNet Inc., a small ISP based in Pennsylvania. They argued that, due to technical limitations, the methods used by ISPs to comply with the act and to block access to child pornography resulted in the blocking of more than 1.5 million legitimate and innocent web sites not that were targeted by the attorney general. The plaintiffs explained that Internet "addresses," which are sets of numbers, are in short supply. Therefore, companies that host web sites, which are assigned blocks of addresses, often assign subaddresses to individual sites, making it difficult for ISPs to block separately. As a result, when prosecutors demand that access to certain web addresses be denied access, many sub-addresses containing legitimate content are also affected. The plaintiffs also argued that the ex parte orders obtained by the attorney general to remove or disable access were, in fact, unconstitutional prior restraints of speech.

The state responded that the act did not require the suppression of protected speech and that if it occurred, it was the result of actions taken by the ISPs. It further argued that child pornography was not "commerce" and therefore that it did not invoke the Commerce Clause.

After careful review of all arguments presented, the district court "ineluctably" (unavoidably) concluded that, "with the current state of technology, the Act cannot be implemented without excessive blocking of innocent speech in violation of the First Amendment." Additionally, the court found that the procedures found in the act were insufficient to justify any prior restraint . Finally, the court agreed that, "given the current design of the Internet," the act was unconstitutional under the Commerce Clause because of its effect on interstate commerce.

As to the Commerce Clause, the court cited the U.S. Constitution's provision, under Article I, Section 8, clause 3, that grants Congress the power "to regulate Commerce…among the several States." The dormant Commerce Clause refers to the negative aspect of the Clause that limits the states' power to regulate interstate commerce. Given the fact that the networks of most ISPs cross state boundaries, the act's blocking orders imposed restrictions on communications occurring wholly outside of Pennsylvania, which constituted an impermissible burden on interstate commerce.

In determining whether the act indeed imposed an impermissible burden, the court applied the balancing test set forth in Pike v. Bruce Church, Inc. 397 U.S. 137, 90 S.Ct. 844, 25 L.Ed.2d 174 (1970). Under Pike, if the act were an evenhanded regulation designed to effectuate a legitimate local public interest, and if its effects on interstate commerce were only incidental, it would be upheld unless the burden excessively outweighed the local benefit. Here, the district court noted that the state had not produced any evidence that the act effectuated its goal of reducing the sexual abuse of children. In fact, there had not been a single prosecution of child pornographers following the act's implementation. On the contrary, the evidence presented tended to show a number of different ways that individuals could evade blocking efforts entirely. Moreover, the filtering methods used by the ISPs resulted in credible evidence that over 1,190,000 web sites not targeted by the state were suppressed or blocked. This, in turn, adversely affected the First Amendment rights of the operators of legitimate web sites. Accordingly, the Court could come to no other conclusion that the act, as written, violated the Constitution.

Three months prior to the district court's decision, the U.S. Supreme Court had similarly rejected the Child Online Protection Act, but in that case it was found that the law did not sufficiently protect the rights of adults to consensually view sexually explicit material on the Internet.

WhenU.Com v. Utah

Utah became the first state in the country to enact legislation addressing the problem of "spyware" and "adware," two forms of unsolicited software remotely installed on individual computers, mostly without the knowledge or consent of the computer user. Although rarely defined in a concise manner, the terms generally refer to software that tracks a computer user's online behavior (e.g., history of web sites most frequently visited) and/or obtains personal data about the user. The information gleaned from this "spying" software is then sold to other companies, often for use in targeted "pop-up" advertising (adware) on the computer user's screen. Legislators cited privacy concerns of Utah residents as the impetus behind the new law.

Utah's bill was signed into law by Utah Governor Olene Walker on March 3, 2004. Among other provisions, the statute prohibited the installation of spyware on a person's computer. It also prohibited the use of context-based triggering mechanisms to display advertisements that covered or obscured paid advertising or other content on a wev site. The bill had been widely opposed by a large coalition of information-technology companies, including Amazon, AOL, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo. However, in the end, it was a lawsuit that kept the new law temporarily enjoined until May 2005, when it finally became effective as amended (H.B. 104).

In v. Utah, No. 040907578, filed in April 2004, plaintiff, a New York-based pop-up advertising company, sought declarative and injunctive relief prohibiting the implementation and enforcement of Utah's Spyware Control Act, Utah Code Ann. Section 13-39-101 (the "Act"). The complaint alleged that the Act impermissibly interfered with interstate commerce, in violation of the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Further, the complaint alleged that the Act violated's First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to protected commercial speech. Other charges included a deprivation of rights under color of state law, in violation of 42 U.S.C. §1983, and parallel violations of the Utah Constitution. emphasized that its software was installed with the consent of users and that it therefore was protected commercial speech.

In June 2004, the district court granted's motion for temporary injunction. The court found that the act was unconstitutional because Internet advertising, as a matter of interstate commerce, fell under the purview of federal, not state, law. A motion for reconsideration, in which Utah petitioned for severance of those portions of the statute that were not found unconstitutional, was denied in September 2004.

Rather than appeal, the Utah legislature hammered out new language that was intended to withstand further legal challenge. In May 2005, H.B. 104 was signed into law just prior to the Legislature's adjournment for the 2005 session. The revised law required advertising companies to pause before loading spyware software onto users' computers, in order to inquire whether the user was a Utah resident. If so, the company was required to stop the remote installation of the spyware software. The new law also vested in the attorney general the authority to bring a cause of action against spyware purveyors on behalf of individual consumers.

By early 2005, only Utah and California had anti-spyware laws in place, although 14 other states were considering similar legislation. All of this could become moot if pending federal legislation were to be passed; e.g., the Safeguard Against Privacy Invasions Act (H.R. 29, passed in the House in May 2005) and the Internet Sypware (I-SPY) Prevention Act (H.R. 744, passed in the House in May 2005).

The larger issue included the spawning of numerous lawsuits from advertising companies and trademark owners against, who alleged that their ads were trumped by competitors' pop-up ads, or that the practice infringed the host site's trademarks by confusing consumers as to the sponsorship of the ads. Some of the entities filing suit against included 1-800-Contacts,, Quicken Loans, U-Haul, Weight Watchers, and Wells Fargo.

According to Earthlink and Webroot Software, the average computer houses approximately 28 items of monitoring software, mostly unknown to the computer owner/user, and used without consent. This estimate parallels an American Online survey that found that 80 percent of home computers are infected with some form of spyware. The technical support crew at Texas-based Dell Computers, the world's largest personal computer manufacturer, reported that over 20 percent of its support calls relate to spyware.


views updated May 23 2018


Emerging from the integration of computer and communications technologies, the Internet is a text- and graphics-based communications system that supports people and organizations in the performance of multiple activities. As such it has the potential to transform the worlds of work in industry, government, education, and entertainment as well as everyday life. A variety of ethical issues arise with this technology, involving not only individual users, but also corporations and governments.

There are two basic meanings associated with the word Internet. In a narrow sense, the Internet is a global network inter-connecting computer networks, from which the word derives. Hence it is a complex network connecting large numbers of devices such as computers, file servers, and video cameras, by means of telephone lines, satellites, and wireless networks. In a broad sense, the Internet also includes that which such technological infrastructure makes possible, which some refer to as cyberspace.

For present purposes the Internet will be characterized as constituting a digital habitat where people increasingly live. Habitat denotes here an environment in which people carry out activities, possibly in interaction with other people, involving specific actions and things. Because the kinds of things people interact with in the Internet are not material in the usual sense of the term, but rather electronic and digital, the Internet may be termed a digital habitat (Stefik 1996).

Emergence and Development of the Internet

Initial development of Internet technology was supported in the 1960s by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense in the context of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union. ARPA's task was to establish the technological and military superiority of the United States. But the agency gave considerable freedom of action to researchers and the development of Internet technology was carried out mainly at university research laboratories by academics whose primary agenda was to develop technologies to allow computers to communicate with each other (Castells 2001).

In 1969 the first nodes of the ARPANET, a packet-switching network, became operational. Subsequently, to deal with the proliferation of computer networks that had appeared in the United States and other countries, additional technology was developed during the 1970s and 1980s to interconnect any kind of network, as long as certain preestablished rules of communication were followed. It is in this context that the Internet, as a network of computer networks, was born (Abbate 1999).

Initially the Internet was used primarily at universities, for the purposes of exchanging electronic mail and for transferring files. It was not until the 1990s, with the development of the World Wide Web—a particular kind of Internet application (Berners-Lee and Fischetti 1999)—that a massive use of the Internet became possible. By mutually reinforcing each other, factors such as an increasing number of users, a growing number of services provided through the Internet, and increasing investment in technologies led to an explosive growth of the Internet. What had started as the ARPANET with four nodes in 1969, had become the Internet with millions of users by the end of the twentieth century.

Ethical Issues

Some have suggested that the ethical issues of the Internet are the same ones that arise in preexisting practices. Another position maintains that although these issues have a correspondence with well known, preexisting dilemmas they nonetheless constitute novel and significant variations (Johnson 2000). Their novelty arises from the very special properties of the entities that populate the Internet.

Because the Internet is composed of digital representations of text, data, music, and software, it can be characterized as a digital habitat. Because of the powerful capabilities of computers and networks, these entities can be reproduced and transferred with minimal effort and delay. One consequence of these properties is a notable characteristic of the Internet that can be called virtual nearness. Every public entity embedded in the Internet, within certain limits, is immediately available to the user—is near in a virtual way. This characteristic makes the emergence of virtual communities possible.

People perform activities in the Internet by means of digital actions carried out by digital programs. The specific steps programs perform can be easily recorded to leave a trace of the actions. In addition, because actions are carried out by programs, there is a question as to who is ultimately behind them, leading to certain forms of anonymity.

Privacy Issues

People carry out an increasing number of activities on the Internet, including exchanging email messages, visiting Internet sites, and buying goods. Transactions with government are increasingly done through the Internet. Medical records are created and made available online. In all of these activities sensitive information about people is gathered and stored. Because of its interconnectivity, the Internet makes it possible to transfer, combine, and cross-reference personal information at a much higher level than was previously achievable. The existence of multiple databases containing information on individuals about health, education, tax, and police matters, as well as on shopping patterns, enables the development of detailed profiles of individuals. Such profiles can be used for making decisions about them, for example, to grant or deny loans, to grant or deny medical insurance, to hire or not to hire, possibly leading to certain forms of discrimination.

Personal information is routinely used for purposes other than those originally intended, in most cases without the knowledge of the people involved. This situation constitutes a significant erosion of privacy.

Although there is a wide consensus that privacy—in particular, medical privacy—has been negatively affected by Internet technology (for example, Etzioni 1999; Johnson 2000; Parenti 2003), there is less agreement on how to confront the situation. Corporations claim they need personal information on their customers in order to be more efficient and profitable. Government agencies claim they need access to personal information for law enforcement purposes. For some theorists, then, the issue is to find a balance between the desires of individuals to keep information about themselves private and the desires of corporations and government to freely access that information. For others this perspective is too narrow because it transforms privacy issues into the balancing of competing claims. In a broader sense, privacy refers to a fundamental aspect of the human condition. Etymologically it is related to the Latin word privus, meaning single, alone. While human beings cannot be understood apart from the communities they belong to, they cannot be understood, either, unless it is recognized that they are unique individuals and have the potential to become increasingly autonomous.

By autonomy is meant the capacity to understand the sources, meanings, and consequences of actions and to exercise that understanding in deciding what actions to take. When information is collected and processed by others, autonomy is endangered in the sense that others can openly or surreptitiously attempt to influence actions on the basis of that information. In this respect, an important consequence of the availability of large amounts of personal information to corporations and government is that it increases their relative power with respect to that of individuals, possibly upsetting a delicate societal balance. For this reason, privacy is not only relevant to individuals but it should also be considered a social good, relevant to society as a whole.

Further discrepancies exist on how to deal with the erosion of privacy. Those who assign an intrinsic value to privacy tend to favor an approach in which individuals must provide explicit consent for the exchange of personal information among corporations, coupled with legislation enforcing such procedures. They claim that existing legislation—such as the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Driver's Privacy Protection Act, and the Electronic Communications Privacy Act—has been developed piecemeal, and propose stronger forms of regulation similar to those existing in some European countries. Others favor a mixture of self-regulation by companies, use of technology to control access to information, and institutional changes leading to practices where information is less exposed to misuse.

An approach increasingly followed by companies is to develop privacy policies that are made available to their customers, indicating how information about them is used and with what other organizations it will be shared, and offering certain privacy options to customers. But without appropriate legislation many are skeptical that corporations can truly police themselves.

Two factors will exacerbate the erosion of privacy in the future. First, given the pace of technological development it is likely that increasing amounts of personal information will be available online. Second, the fight against terrorism triggered by the attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, will put significant pressure on government agencies to acquire and make use of that information, by wiretapping or other means, to detect terrorism-related activities. The Patriot Act enacted by Congress in October 2001 points strongly in this direction (Hentoff 2003). To conclude, a significant, multi-pronged effort will be required to deal with the erosion of privacy underway at the beginning of the twenty first century and to a large extent catalyzed by Internet technology.

Intellectual Property Issues

Intellectual property differs from tangible forms of property, such as cars and other goods, in that it is easily reproducible. Given that in the context of the Internet intellectual property, such as software and music, is stored in electronic files, people can reproduce and transfer it with minimal effort. It is precisely this notable characteristic of the Internet that is at the source of contentious issues regarding intellectual property. The case of Napster—a company that facilitated the global sharing of music files over the Internet and was shut down in 2001 as a consequence of a lawsuit brought against it by the recording industry—is important because it brought to light subtle issues, both at the core of the notion of intellectual property and on why and how the law protects it.

Ideas, literary works, and music are forms of speech. Freedom of speech, in one sense, implies the freedom to formulate and propagate ideas, as well as to have unfettered access to ideas and forms of speech produced by others. In the latter case, the authors of these works regard them as property and would like to be fairly compensated for their use. In addition, the free flow of ideas, for example of those that emerge in the context of science and technology, is regarded as beneficial to society as a whole. How can the tension between freedom of speech and progress, on one hand, and ownership of intellectual works, on the other, be resolved?

The Constitution itself lays out a basic framework for dealing with these issues, and gives Congress the power to enact legislation. Copyright law emerged in this context. An important distinction is established between ideas and expression of ideas, such that only the latter can be owned, and for a limited time.

Copyright law grants exclusive rights of copy to owners of intellectual property or to those whom owners grant permission, but through the notion of fair use it also establishes limits on this exclusivity. If a person buys a compact disk containing music, it is considered fair use to make extra copies of the disk for use in a car and for backup purposes. This is also true with regard to software. The law imposes additional restrictions on what can be copyrighted, including that the expression of ideas be novel and developed independently by its author.

Given these subtle distinctions, limits and restrictions imposed on intellectual property, the determination of whether copyrights have been infringed, and the enforcement of these rights are very difficult matters. The advent of the Internet has complicated the issues. The Napster case illustrated how the Internet made the copy and dissemination of music possible on a grand scale. While the recording industry considered it a form of electronic thievery, for some the exchange of files may have been an extreme case of fair use.

Supplemental Ethical Issues

Because the Internet makes it easy for people and groups to publish electronically, and given the potentially large audience that can be reached, the issue of what can be expressed on and accessed through the Internet arises. Again conflicting demands come into play. For example, freedom of access to public information conflicts with the desire to limit the availability of material that many regard as unacceptable.

Specifically impeding access to pornography by children in public libraries through the Internet could interfere with access to those same materials by adults. The Communications Decency Act passed by Congress in 1996 addressed that issue. A year later, the Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional, siding with freedom of access and against censorship.

As already discussed, virtual nearness makes the emergence of virtual communities in the Internet possible, giving rise to virtual community (Turkle 1995). Some communities, in which people are represented by icons and fictitious names, provide opportunities for socializing in novel ways. In particular anonymity allows for the possibility of altering important elements of one's identity including gender, age, and race. What range of behavior is permissible in these situations? What would count as violence, as being too close to another person, as an attempted rape (Johnson 2000)?

Global Issues

A more global view raises two sociopolitical questions. First, given that the Internet facilitates the association of people with shared views, in particular, political views, and that it allows for the communication of those views to large numbers of people, does the Internet promote democracy as some have suggested? Second, considering that geographical barriers have little or no effect on the Internet, could the Internet contribute to undermine nation-states?

To a large extent, the answer to these questions depends on what the Internet becomes in the future. The Internet could remain as it is in the early-twenty-first century, except that almost everybody, everywhere, would have access to it and more activities would be carried out with its support. Or the Internet could become primarily a global entertainment machine by the convergence of radio, television, and the film, recording, and computer game industries. Or finally the reach of the Internet could be extended by ubiquity, wirelessness, and wearable computers.

In the context of these scenarios, the question of promotion of democracy answers itself: Although the possibility of performing political actions through the Internet would continue to exist, in the last two scenarios—the most likely—given the amount of noise that a global entertainment machine and the various extensions to the Internet would put into circulation, anything else would become barely audible and visible, including political action. In addition, the erosion of privacy mentioned earlier could contribute to undermining autonomy with, possibly, negative consequences for democracy.

With respect to the second question, about nationstates, the pressure to have common rules and laws, for electronic commerce, intellectual property, and privacy, that would facilitate the migration of activities to the Internet could undermine the sovereignty of less powerful countries. Although nation-states could try to control what regions of the Internet are accessible to its citizens (Hamelink 2000), given the connectivity of the Internet the effort would fail.

Finally the third scenario posed above leads to a fundamental philosophical question that can only be set out in this entry. Is it possible that the pervasive and substantial intermediation of human activities by the Internet—which would amount to a massive migration from material habitats to a global digital habitat—could invite essential transformations of the way human beings are? And what kinds of transformations would they be? But importantly, do people still have the ability to actually ask this question, or will the increasing noise make such questioning impossible?


SEE ALSO Computer Ethics;Computer Virusus;Cyberspace;Digital Divide;Hypertext;Networks.


Abbate, Janet. (1999). Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Berners-Lee, Tim, and Mark Fischetti. (1999). Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web. San Francisco: Harper.

Castells, Manuel. (2001). The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dreyfus, Hubert. (2001). On the Internet. New York: Routledge. The author presents a critique of the Internet reminiscent of his previous critique of Artificial Intelligence. Focusing on possibilities opened up by the Internet such as navigation with hyper-links, distance learning, disembodied telepresence, and anonymity the author shows them to give rise to weaker forms of experience when compared with the way in which people deal with the world without the intermediation of the Internet.

Etzioni, Amitai. (1999). The Limits of Privacy. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Halbert, Terry, and Elaine Ingulli, eds. (2002). CyberEthics. Cincinnati, OH: West-Thomson Learning. See especially in this collection John Perry Barlow's "The Economy of Ideas: A Framework for Patents and Copyrights in the Digital Age."

Hamelink, Cees J. (2000). The Ethics of Cyberspace. London: SAGE Publications.

Hentoff, Nat. (2003). The War on the Bill of Rights and the Gathering Resistance. New York: Seven Stories Press.

Johnson, Deborah G. (2000). Computer Ethics, 3rd edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Parenti, Christian. (2003). The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.

Poster, Mark. (2001). What's the Matter with the Internet? Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. In this ambitious work, the Internet and its transformative power is examined from a variety of perspectives ranging from Heideggerian meditations on technology to Foucauldian considerations of subjectivity to post-Marxian analyses of capitalism and the nation-state. By juxtaposing these perspectives a rich understanding of the Internet emerges.

Stefik, Mark. (1999). The Internet Edge: Social, Legal, and Technological Challenges for a Networked World. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Stefik, Mark, ed. (1996). Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths, and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Turkle, Sherry. (1995). Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.


views updated May 18 2018


The technical accomplishments leading to the construction and prevalence of the Internet are well documented. Much of this documentation is available over the Internet itself, including those resources published by administrative groups responsible for Internet standards and practices.

A Brief History of the Internet

In brief, the Internet originated with the conceptualization and realization of a robust packet-switched network. The first packet-switched network designs came from Paul Baran's research at RAND Corporation in the 1960s and, independently, from Donald Davies and his colleagues at the U.K. National Physics Laboratories. Shortly thereafter, Leonard Kleinrock and UCLA's Network Management Center used packet-switching techniques to develop and refine the ARPANET, the immediate precursor to the Internet. The first ARPANET connection was successfully completed in 1969.

Packet-switching—a method of communicating data from one computer to another—allowed the construction of a single network capable of linking together a large number and variety of interior hardware and software configurations. Packet-switching technologies were standardized and put into widespread use as the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) in 1983. The implementation of TCP/IP led to exponential growth in the capacity and use of the Internet: Internet backbone speeds increased from roughly 56 kilobits per second to over 2 gigabits per second by 2002; hosts grew from about 500 in 1983 to close to 150 million by the early 2000s.

Two major events since 1983 drastically changed the appearance and use of the Internet, making the fledgling network both more accessible to mass audiences and more adaptable to recreational and leisure-time use. The first was the commercialization of the Internet in 1991; the second was the 1993 public release (through the Mosaic browser) of Tim Berners-Lee's earlier software innovation, the World Wide Web (WWW).

Commercialization radically changed the content available over the Internet, and the World Wide Web provided a new method—based on a simplified visual interface and command structure embedded with hyperlinks—for transferring files. Both these changes were instrumental in the rapid global diffusion, acceptance, and use of today's Internet.

Popular Uses of the Internet

Though the Internet does not yet have the volume or history of research dedicated to other popular media (e.g., television and film), Internet studies are, in general, more timely and accessible than those devoted to older media. In addition to a growing number of studies using conventional research methods—widely available within online archives—Internet research benefits from the constant monitoring and updating of data that measure the technical components of network use.

Though Internet use continued to grow dramatically, in 2004 it had yet to achieve the widespread penetration of television. Prior to the last decade, Internet use had been confined to a relatively younger, more affluent, and much more highly educated segment of the world's population than the television-viewing audience. However, many of these differences were shrinking as the Internet user population grew—most particularly in developed countries. For instance, the average age of the Internet user in the United States was approaching forty in 2004, and the percentage of women using the Internet at home had grown over the previous five years to be roughly equal that of men.

E-mail is clearly the most common use of the Internet for the 60 million Americans who go online every day. Sending and receiving messages over the Internet is most often accomplished asynchronously, though synchronous communications software—for example, "Instant Messaging" services—is increasingly popular among the Internet's younger users.

The most popular functions of the Internet for mass audiences (other than e-mail) are associated with information receiving rather than information sending. Most often, the information sought is intended for recreational and leisure-time use. For instance, searching for news and weather information has not rated as highly in user surveys as has searching for "hobby" information.

Although there is some evidence that the Internet has partially displaced television viewing as a leisure-time activity, there is less evidence of similar displacements of newspaper reading, radio listening, or other media-related activities. In comparison to other media use, then, the Internet is best regarded as a time-enhancing rather than time-displacing technology.

Research is less clear concerning the impact of the Internet on socializing with friends, family interactions, and the psychological well-being of its heaviest users. Some researchers have found social relationships formed during Internet use are less intimate and less fulfilling than those formed in more conventional contexts, resulting in an increased likelihood of depression and lone-liness; others—including some of the Internet's heaviest and most accomplished users—have emphasized the more positive aspects of those relationships established and sustained through computer-mediated communications and the Internet.

Communications Play on the Internet

E-mail Electronic mail was implemented on the ARPANET by Ray Tomlinson in 1971—a couple of years after that network became functional. Not part of the original network design, the first electronic mail protocols were intended to aid technical resource sharing and scientific information exchange over the ARPANET. However, stripped of the formal mediation between sender and receiver that dominated telex and telegram transmissions, e-mail messages came to be used in more spontaneous, intimate, and expressive ways. Almost immediately after becoming publicly available, e-mails—and similar, related forms of computer-mediated communications (CMC)—were transformed into personalized contexts for play.

The personal nature of e-mail encouraged its rapid growth through the late 1970s, when proprietary systems of dial-up message exchange services (e.g., MCI Mail, CompuServe) were developed and marketed for use with home computers. The personal computer revolution also proved a catalyst for the development of private bulletin board systems (BBS); personal computer owners and enthusiasts installed and widely used these systems in the late 1970s and early 1980s as free e-mail storage and forwarding systems within local telephone exchanges. Early BBS functions and capabilities were eventually absorbed into the Internet, which was able to connect larger audiences over much broader geographical areas at less cost. However, many of the most unique and most playful characteristics of e-mail first appeared during the early promulgation of personal bulletin board systems; representative examples of these include "emoticons," "flaming," and the now ubiquitous "spamming."

Initial studies of Internet communications emphasized the faceless nature of the medium and its corresponding lack of "social presence." However, e-mail users were quick to find methods of communicating emotional content that were analogous to the facial expressions, verbal tones, and body language of offline communications —though often quite different in form.

Emoticons are the most obvious examples of the personalization of e-mail texts. Playful creations of early email users, these text-based symbols are created by using the visual characteristics of keyboard characters (for example :-) indicates a smiley face). Emoticons, related forms of ASCII art—any use of the visual appearance of the ASCII (American Standard Code for Information Interchange) characters—and the numerous shorthand acronyms of listservs had a similar function: to create a communications context unbound by the limitations and technical requirements of the medium. Sometimes, these new forms of play have been extreme.

Flaming, for instance, was a common and largely unexpected phenomenon of early communications play on home bulletin board systems: a barrage of critical messages sent in reply to previous messages. These criticisms were commonly lengthy, colorful, and even lurid—motivating further flaming in reply. Many bulletin board systems were entirely devoted to flaming activities, with groups of BBS users creating flaming clubs to hurl verbal barbs at one another—for no purpose other than play.

Spamming—sending unsolicited or junk e-mail (or spam) to often unwilling recipients—likewise represents an extreme form of systemic play within CMC, with both positive and negative impact. The ease with which mass-mailing lists could be compiled and employed within CMC contexts led to the widespread distribution of spam that, like the distribution of flames, was more often a form of play for senders than receivers—at least it was initially. By 2004, spam for tens of thousands of dubious commercial products and offers had become such a serious problem that the U.S. Congress had passed laws trying to limit its spread.

Software cracks, viruses, and Web site assaults (such as denial of service attacks) are similar forms of dysfunctional play within prevailing economic and social contexts. While initially these too might have been nothing more than personal expressions of identity within a mass-mediated communications environment otherwise governed by technical rules and limitations, by 2004 these attacks had also become much more harmful.

Chat E-mail is an asynchronous form of communication. By the late 1980s network software began to appear allowing synchronous—or real-time—message exchanges analogous to those of verbal conversations. Communications play over the Internet now commonly includes these synchronous forms, well represented by Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which was developed in 1988, and its many descendants, such as AOL's Instant Messenger.

Synchronous, online group communications software for recreational use originated as a MUD (multiuser dungeon) in 1979 when Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle at Essex University in the United Kingdom collaborated on the first online multiplayer adventure game: MUD1. MUD1 was a multiplayer adaptation of Will Crowther's ADVENT, or The Colossal Cave (1975), which eventually spawned an entire genre of single-player computer adventure games. MUD1—and MUDs in general—allowed a number of players to interact with one another (chat) in real time within a text-based virtual landscape (or "dungeon") using a rudimentary parser—a computer program that interprets the syntactic structure of a series of symbols or commands—and simple subject-verb commands ("use key," "open door"). Later versions of the software were labeled Multi-User Domains (or Dimension) to divorce their use from dedicated adventure game play.

MOOs—object oriented MUDs—were a subsequent refinement of the MUD software that allowed a more interactive virtual environment and user modifications of that environment. Both MUDs and MOOs have been adopted for a variety of educational and professional uses, but are most commonly used as a form of recreational communications and role-play over the Internet. Along with the evolution of graphics displays, the virtual environment for these role-playing activities has moved from a text-based screen to a more visual—and increasingly three-dimensional—context.

MUD1 was licensed to CompuServe as British Legends and discontinued as a commercial service in 1999. Other versions of the MUD software have since been used to develop more commercially viable MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The first widely played MMORPG was Ultima Online (1997), a multiplayer adaptation of Origin Systems' Ultima, a long-lived single-player computer role-playing-game series.

Everquest, a rather conventional role-playing game in the Dungeons and Dragons tradition with an innovative three-dimensional interface, came to dominate the MMORPG market soon after its release by Verant Interactive in 1999. The game, acquired by Sony Online Entertainment in 2000, had grown to over 250,000 subscribers by 2004 and created a strong secondary market of related web sites, offline information resources, and character equipment and item barter and exchange.

MMORPGs provide an imaginative and mutable context for play and are associated with large and active online—and offline—communities of players, which extend and reinforce that play. Further evolution and refinement of MMORPGs are likely as the form proves increasingly profitable.

In 2004, synchronous communications play over the Internet—including use of generic network chat applications—was much less common than e-mail and World Wide Web use. Internet Relay Chat, for instance, had changed little in form, function, or primary use since its inception in Finland in 1988. While e-mail has proven a popular alternative to conventional postal services, IRC and its derivatives have not been as widely used as substitutes for offline social interactions. Synchronous communications play over the Internet remained restricted to a relatively younger, more affluent, and more technically inclined group than users of the Internet as a whole—and there were questions as to whether the most active users of role-playing games benefit from their play or were perhaps even harmed by it.

Social Impact of Internet Play

The recreational use of the Internet can be applied to such a broad class of CMC-related activities that there is little fundamental distinction between recreational and nonrecreational use of the medium. Databases, educational programs, and business web sites—among many other online forms—engage users with graphics displays, software interfaces, and client-server hardware that parallel those used (and often first developed) to facilitate games and play.

One of the most critical issues left undecided concerning the recreational use of the Internet as of 2004 was whether online communications functions negatively inhibited or more positively supplemented and sustained offline social relationships. This was an issue raised most pointedly regarding Internet-based role-playing activities in MUD and MOO environments. Survey research presented evidence documenting both positive and negative outcomes—including contrary results published by the same research teams.

Research has found evidence of online communications activities that enhanced and substituted for (in some diminished capacity) offline interactions, but there was little similar evidence indicating that face-to-face social interactions were wholly eliminated in favor of their online facsimiles. Aside from those studies citing Internet "addiction" (an affliction most often compared to gambling addiction) among a small percentage of the user population, the most recent studies and analyses as of 2004 displayed a growing reluctance to accept those theoretical models that explained and predicted Internet use and effects based solely on the unique technological characteristics of computer-mediated communications.

To a great extent, controversies over the impact of Internet use for recreation and leisure appear similar to those controversies concerning the impact of play with other media and within other contexts. Perhaps it is only because the Internet has spread so widely and so quickly that these controversies have had little chance to be resolved with any significant measure of accuracy or satisfaction. However, it is also likely that Internet entertainment and play are more distinctive in form than in function from their offline counterparts. If so—if indeed the debate over Internet use and its outcomes is rooted in yet controversial characteristics of human behavior rather than in some more definitive and objective characteristics of networked digital media—then there is little assurance that resolutions will be soon forthcoming.

Play on the Internet, like play in many other contexts, continues to have variable and often unpredictable effects. Internet play raises issues of privacy, censorship, and security that are undetermined—and perhaps undeterminable—by existing social policies, legal precedents, or cultural values. Internet research, while topical and timely, has yet to establish clear and detailed trends of Internet use and effects within a stable communications environment.

As Internet content and functions continue to evolve rapidly, it is likely much about the future use of the Internet will confound contemporary media theory. However, many aspects of the recreational use of the Internet appear determined by those characteristics of human communicators that persist across media and cultures. Human play is one of the most fundamental of those characteristics.

See also: Computer/Video Games, Computer's Impact on Leisure


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David Myers


views updated May 29 2018


The Internet is a vast network that connects many independent networks and links computers at different locations. It enables computer users throughout the world to communicate and to share information in a variety of ways. Its evolution into the World Wide Web made it easy to use for those with no prior computer training.


The Internet could not exist until the modern computer came to be. The first electronic computers were developed during the 1940s, and these early machines were so largemainly because of all the bulky vacuum tubes they needed to perform calculationsthat they often took up an entire room by themselves. They were also very expensive, and only a few corporations and government agencies could afford to own one. The decade of the 1950s proved to be one of silent conflict and tension between the Soviet Union and the United Statesa period called the "cold war"and computers naturally came to play a large role in those nations' military planning. Since each country was obsessed with the possibility of a deliberate or accidental nuclear war breaking out, the United States began to consider how it might protect its valuable lines of communication in case such a disaster did occur. By the 1960s, both nations had become increasingly dependent on their rapidly-improving computing technologies, and the United States eventually developed a means of linking its major defense-related computer facilities together (to form a network). In 1969, the U.S. Department of Defense began a network of university and military computers that it called ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network).

Words to Know

HTML: HyperText Markup Language, used in writing pages for the World Wide Web; it lets the text include codes that define font, layout, embedded graphics, and hypertext links.

HTTP: HyperText Transfer Protocol, which is the way World Wide Web pages are transferred over the Internet.

Hypertext: System of writing and displaying text that enables the text to be linked in multiple ways, to be available on several levels of detail, and to contain links to related documents.

Links: Electronic connections between pieces of information.

Network: A system made up of lines or paths for data flow that includes nodes where the lines intersect and where the data can flow into different lines.

Packets: Small batches of data that computers exchange.

Protocols: Rules or standards for operations and behavior.

World Wide Web: A hypermedia system that is a graphical map for the Internet, that is simple to understand, and that helps users navigate around Internet sites.

Packet switching

The major characteristic of ARPANET was the way it used the new idea called "packet switching." What this does is break up dataor information to be transmitted from one computer to anotherinto pieces or "packets" of equal-size message units. These pieces or packets are then sent separately to their destination where they are finally reassembled to reform the complete message. So by "packet switching" data, a message is sent in pieces or segments, each of which may travel a different route to the same destination, where it is eventually put back together, no matter how or which way it got there. For defense purposes, this system seemed ideal since if there were any working path to the final destination, no matter how indirect, the new network would find it and use it to get the message through. In 1970, ARPANET began operations between only four universities, but by the end of 1971, ARPANET was linking twenty-three host computers.

How computers could talk to one another

As this system slowly grew, it became apparent that eventually the computers at each different location would need to follow the same rules and procedures if they were to communicate with one another. In fact, if they all went their separate ways and spoke a different "language" and operated under different instructions, then they could never really be linked together in any meaningful way. More and more, the scientists, engineers, librarians, and computer experts who were then using ARPANET found that the network was both highly complex and very difficult to use. As early as 1972, users were beginning to form a sort of bulletin board for what we now call e-mail (electronic mail). This made the need for common procedures even more obvious, and in 1974, what came to be called a common protocol (pronounced PRO-tuh-call) was finally developed. Protocols are sets of rules that standardize how something is done so that everyone knows what to do and what to expectsort of like the rules of a game. This common language was known as a Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

Open architecture

The development of this protocol proved to be a crucial step in the development of a real, working network since it established certain rules or procedures that eventually would allow the network really to expand. One of the keys of the protocol was that it was designed with what was called "open architecture." This meant that each network would be able to work on its own and not have to modify itself in any way in order to be part of the network. This would be taken care of by a "gateway" (usually a larger computer) that each network would have whose special software linked it to the outside world. In order to make sure that data was transmitted quickly, the gateway software was designed so that it would not hold on to any of the data that passed through it. This not only sped things up, but it also removed any possibility of censorship or central control. Finally, data would always follow the fastest available route, and all networks were allowed to participate.

Computer address

In practice, the new TCP/IP set up a system that is often compared to a postal system. The information being sent or the "data packets" would have headers just as a letter has an address on its envelope. The header would therefore specify where it came from and what its destination was. Just as everyone's postal rules (protocols) state that all mail must be in an envelope or some sort of package and that it must have postage and a destination address, so TCP/IP said that every computer connected to the network must have a unique address. When the electronic packet was sent to the routing computer, it would sort through tables of addresses just as a mail sorter in a post office sorts through zip codes. It would then select the best connection or available route and send it along. On the receiving end, the TCP/IP software made sure all the pieces of the packet were there and then it put them back together in proper order, ready to be used. It makes no difference (other than speed) to the network how the data was transmitted, and one computer can communicate with another using regular phone lines, fiber-optic cables, radio links, or even satellites.

Personal computers and domain names

All of this took some time, but by the beginning of 1983, when the TCP/IP was ready to go and finally adopted, the Internetor a network of networkswas finally born. To this point, most of the business on the "Net," as it came to be called, was science-oriented. About this same time, however, the microcomputer revolution was also starting to be felt. Called "personal computers," these new, smaller, desktop-size computers began slowly to enter businesses and homes, eventually transforming the notion of what a computer was. Until this time, a computer was a very large, super-expensive, anonymous-looking machine (called a "mainframe") that only corporations could afford. Now however, a computer was a friendly, nearly-portable, personal machine that had a monitor or screen like a television set. As more and more individuals purchased a personal computer and eventually learned about a way of talking to another computer (via e-mail), the brand-new Internet soon began to experience the problems of its own success.

By 1984, it was apparent that something had to be done to straighten out and simplify the naming system for each "host" computer (the host was the "server" computer that was actually linked to the Internet). That year, the system called "Domain Name Servers" was created. This new system organized Internet addresses into various "domains" or categoriessuch as governmental (.gov), commercial (.com), educational (.edu), military (.mil), network sites (.net), or international organizations (.org)that were tacked onto the end of the address. Host or server names now were not only much easier to remember, but the alphabetical addresses themselves actually stood for a longer coded sequence of numbers that the computer needed in order to specifically identify an address. Thus, a person needed only to use a fairly short alphabetical address, which itself contained the more complex numerical sequence. By 2001, however, an entire batch of additional domain names (.biz, .info, .name,.museum, .aero, .coop, and .pro) had to be created to account for the increase in both specialization and use. This domain expansion is similar to the phone company issuing new area codes.


By the mid-1980s, a second, larger network had grown up in the United States, and it would eventually absorb ARPANET. The National Science Foundation established its own cross-country network, called NSFNET, in order to encourage increased network communication by colleges

and universities. NSFNET adopted the TCP/IP rules, but it did not allow its system to be used for non-educational purposes. This policy proved to be very important since it eventually led businesses to create networks of their own, and also encouraged several private "providers" to open for business. In 1987, the first subscription-based commercial Internet company, called UUNET, was founded. As the end of the 1980s approached, the Internet was growing, but it was still not the place for a beginner. The main problem was that every time users wanted to do something different on it (such as e-mail or file transfer), they had to know how to operate an entirely separate program. Commands had to be either memorized or reference manuals had to be constantly consulted. The Internet was not "user-friendly."

World Wide Web

The development of what came to be called the World Wide Web in 1991 marked the real breakthrough of the Internet to a mass audience of users. The World Wide Web is really a software package that was based on "hypertext." In hypertext, links are "embedded" in the text (meaning that certain key words are either underlined or appear in a contrasting sdifferent color) that the user can then click on with a mouse to be taken to another site containing more information. It was the development of the Web that made usage of the Internet really take off, since it was simple to understand and use and enabled even new users to be able to explore or "surf" the Net. Without the World Wide Web, the Internet probably would have remained a mystery to those huge numbers of people who either had no computer expertise or wanted any computer training.

The Web developed a new set of rules called HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) that simplified address writing and that used a new programming language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language). This special language allowed users easily to jump (by clicking on a link) from one document or information resource to another. In 1993, the addition of the program called Mosaic proved to be the final breakthrough in terms of ease-of-use. Before Mosaic, the Web

was limited only to text or words. However, as a "graphical browser," the Mosaic program included multimedia links, meaning that a user could click on icons (pictures of symbols) and view pictures, listen to audio, and even see video. By 1995, with the addition of sound and graphics and the emergence of such large commercial providers as America Online (AOL), Prodigy, and Compuserv, interest and usage of the Internet really took off.

By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Internet had become a vast network involving millions of users connected by many independent networks spanning over 170 countries throughout the world. People use it to communicate (probably the most popular use), and hundreds of millions of e-mail messages electronically fly across the globe every day. People also use it as they would a library, to do research of all types on all sorts of subjects. On almost any major subject, a user can find text, photos, video, and be referred to other books and sources. The

Internet also has commercial possibilities, and users can find almost any type of product being sold there. A person with a credit card can book an airline flight, rent a beach home and car, reserve tickets to a performance, and buy nearly anything else he or she desires. Some businesses benefit from this more than others, but there is no dismissing the fact that the Internet has changed the way business is conducted.

Used daily for thousands of other reasons, the Internet is many things to many people. It is a world-wide broadcasting medium, a mechanism for interacting with others, and a mechanism for obtaining and disseminating information. Today, the Internet has become an integral part of our world, and most would agree that its usefulness is limited only by our imagination.

[See also Computer software ]


views updated Jun 27 2018


The Islamic presence in cyberspace relates to both religious authority and the accessibility of authoritative texts, scriptural and juridical, reflecting a spectrum of views internal to the diverse Muslim community. Digital Islam projects Muslim values yet is also bound by them. It is further influenced by the American origins of the World Wide Web: Afro-Asian Muslim students who came to the United States to be trained as engineers were also the first to create specifically Islamic websites (especially through Muslim Student Associations, or MSAs). Their concerns remain the concerns of Muslims worldwide: to foster cyber Islamic environments that reinforce Muslim values no matter what the dominant culture or the vocational demands that individual Muslims face.

The Boundaries of Digital Islam

One of the most fertile and recurrent metaphors from Muslim imagery is the Straight Path. It is first introduced in the opening chapter of the Qur˒an. "Guide us on the Straight Path," each Muslim asks of Allah each day and each time that he or she engages in canonical prayer (salat). The Straight Path, and only the Straight Path, leads to peace, to truth, to certainty, in this world and also in the next.

The boundaries of digital Islam reflect the scriptural, creedal, and historical boundaries of Islamic thinking before the Information Age. There can be no Islam without limits or without guideposts. One cannot have a Straight Path unless what is beyond or outside or against the Straight Path is known. Cyberspace, like social space, must be monitored to be effectively Muslim. As Gary Bunt has noted, "much is done by Muslims in the name of Islam that is dismissed as inappropriate, or worse, by other Muslims. Not every surfer (Muslim or non-Muslim) is able to make appropriate judgments, or possess the knowledge to determine 'the truth.'"

Yet the horizontal, open-ended nature of the Internet makes the boundaries of digital Islam more porous and more subject to change than those of its predecessors. There are still the same guideposts: the scripture (the Qur˒an), the person (the Last Prophet) and the law (with the ulema or religious specialists as its custodians). Each has to be defined or redefined in cyberspace in order to reflect the staggering diversity within the worldwide Muslim community (umma). The cyber-umma remains a subset of, not a substitute for, the actual umma.

The most profound diversity is the global distribution of Muslims themselves. Muslims comprise between one-quarter and one-third of the world's population. More Muslims are Asian than African, more are African than Arab, and many Muslims now live outside their countries of origin, whether in Europe or North America. It is Euro-American Muslim immigrants who form the leading edge for change in the Muslim world as a whole. Children of the information technology revolution, they have a heightened sense of diversity, at the same time that they use expanded human and material resources to link themselves with other, like-minded groups.

There is a debate about whether or not the Internet encourages democracy in the Muslim world. Some cybernauts have assumed that the expansive technology of the World Wide Web makes it as democratic in access as it is global in scope. But others claim that the Internet further shores up traditional authority, since only certain groups of Asian (or Arab or Iranian) Muslim immigrants get their views projected on web pages in cyberspace. The South Asian cultural critic Ziauddin Sardar (1996), for instance, lambasts cyberspace as "social engineering of the worst kind. . . . The supposed democracy of cyberspace only hands control more effectively back to a centralized elite, the ideology of the free citizen making everyone oblivious to the more enduring structures of control."

The Internet and the Information Age

For those Muslims who do have access to cyberspace, two key terms frame their experience of the Internet. Both terms, Muslim networks and the Information Age, come together in digital Islam. Muslim networks precede and inform the Information Age. Manuel Castells accents the difference inaugurated by the information technology revolution. This revolution did not erase prior networks, but it did enhance the way they function. The information technology revolution has made the internal diversity and historical networking of Muslims more apparent. The Internet, in particular, opens up access to communities that were closed or inaccessible, thus facilitating an investigation of the ways in which diverse peoples encounter their diversity and interpret their experiences. It provides options for new forms of collective interaction.

During the 1990s, the Internet became part of daily life in many parts of the world. While access in Africa and Asia remains limited for economic and political reasons, grassroots organizations are learning how to exploit the democratizing potential of e-connectivity and to circumvent attempts to centralize control. In Malaysia, for example, networks opposed to the government have established a tiered system of distribution. Elites with computer access download materials as hard copies, which are then widely distributed into rural areas, where they can be read aloud to groups of illiterate people. Virtual communities are becoming the norm, even as technophiles debate with neo-Luddites about whether they are the harbingers of a brave new world or the end of fully human life.

While the information revolution emerges out of technological developments and organizational patterns long in place throughout the world, it can be marked as a revolution because of its difference from these same antecedent patterns. What is different are the speed, scope, and directness of communication, nowhere more evident than in the concept of telepresence.

Telepresence and Resistance

Telepresence is a new form of association, and, as such, it compels a reconsideration of the meaning of community: What is community when participants do not share place but can communicate as if they did? If shared place is not a necessary condition, is the notion of community as embodied contact a romantic projection of an idealized past? Sociologists since the nineteenth century have been worrying about the impact of technology on community, as though it possessed a solid, immutable core. But a century later, communities survive, albeit in less solid but no less real forms. While it is too early to predict how transformative the Internet will be, its impact on individual, communal, and national identity is growing.

The challenge for Muslim cybernauts is the same as for other "netizens" (a neologism meaning "internet citizens"): How to define place and community in new ways that do not oppose virtual and real but rather see them as complementary? Can social networking in the flows of the information superhighway provide an alternate context within which to build communities as small as a kinship group, or as large as a nation?

The cybernetic revolution provides unprecedented opportunities for local and transnational community formation. Whether Muslims aggregate in virtual associations, such as cyber-Muslim chat groups, or actual networks, such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws (<>), they project a common pattern of fragmentation, dispersal, and reaggregation. In this era of mass migration, when violence and economic necessity have forced many to travel, diasporic Muslims are split from their birth communities. They are compelled to negotiate multiple speaking positions as they imagine and project national identities. Nationalism today, though geographically fragmented, is socially networked through language and systems of meaning that allow participants to share cultural practices and experiences. People are able to diversify their participation in various communities to reflect shared interests rather than shared place or shared ancestry. They may also form contingent virtual communities to respond to emergencies at the collective and individual levels, as well as to provide companionship, social support, and a sense of belonging.

The Internet seems to empower individuals who would not otherwise have a public voice to express and present their opinions to strangers. However divergent from the norm, an individual can insist on his or her unorthodox position. A debate that could be closed in real space by the assertion of dominance by a majority remains open in virtual space. Consider the fierce debate concerning women's rights as human rights and Muslim women as fully the equal of Muslim men. Often this debate centers on one hadith of the prophet Muhammad, to wit, that "a nation which places its affairs in the hands of a woman shall never prosper." Traditionalists have used it to deny women any role in affairs of state or the public domain, but a contemporary Nigerian jurist, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, has demonstrated through an essay circulated on the Internet (at <>) the extent to which rival interpretations of this hadith render it suspect as the eternal norm governing Muslim women's access to professional employment and political power.

Heteroglossia and contestation do not automatically replace the ideological closure of other forms of telecommunication such as newspapers, television, radio, and even telephone. Still, dissension that might have been quashed previously in an environment where hegemonic discourse held sway might today persist beyond presumed endings. To the extent that the necessarily horizontal nature of relationships on the Net challenges traditional hierarchies, the democratizing potential of the Net holds out hope for people living under authoritarian rule in many postcolonial Muslim states.

Consequences of the Information Technology Revolution

The Information Age is an age defined by media, whether print (newspapers), auditory (the radio and telephone), audiovisual (television and movies), or print-auditory-visual-tactile (the World Wide Web). There could be no World Wide Web without antecedent technological breakthroughs, yet it represents the culmination of a process the further consequences of which no one yet knows. While Muslims did not create the World Wide Web, they have been among its beneficiaries, at least in those nodes of the global capitalist community where Muslims work, live, and pray either in their own cosmopolitan centers or as part of the demographic pluralism of Western Europe, North America and South/Southeast Asia.

What will be the consequence of the information technology revolution for Islam during the next two decades? Castells has argued that it will augur the biggest revolution experienced by humankind since the invention of the Greek alphabet in 700 b.c.e. It is too early to confirm Castells' grand vision, but even if one acknowledges its long-term potential, its immediate impact has to be qualified on two major points. First, the boundaries of religious knowledge are not so easily or so swiftly changed. The major web site for Muslims in the Euro-American diaspora today is IslamiCity in Cyberspace, located at <>, <>, and <>.

It has been embraced by Muslim Student Associations throughout North America, at the same time that it has benefited from the early endeavors of student-based webmasters to create Cyber Islamic environments. Because IslamiCity in Cyberspace claims 120 million hits since January 2001, it would seem that it fulfills its mission, namely, to service the global Muslim ecommunity.

But does IslamiCity actually represent all Muslims, in geographic space as well as in cyberspace? IslamiCity in Cyberspace is itself an offshoot of HADI, the acronym for a Saudi overseas holding company based in California: Human Assistance and Development International. In Arabic, hadi means guide or leader. Hadi is also one of the "99 Most Beautiful Names of God," and it echoes the phrase from the Qur˒an cited above: "Guide us on the Straight Path." In this case, however, the Straight Path guides the Muslim cybernaut towards norms and values that reflect the Saudi sponsors of HADI. It reflects the effort of the Saudi government to project itself as the bastion of Islamic orthodoxy, at once the conduit and the center for the one billion strong umma. Yet the HADI-sponsored websites have little relationship to other cyber-Muslim voices with a variant notion of Islamic loyalty and ritual practice.

Among the numerous alternative Muslim websites, two kinds contrast sharply with Islamicity in Cyberspace. One is the principal Twelver Shi˓ite website at <>. This site, like HADI, originates from North America, in this case from Canada, but instead of the dominant Sunni stress on scripture and Prophetic practice, it projects a personal loyalty to ˓Ali, the cousin/son-in-law of the Prophet and an individual whom Shi˓ite Muslims esteem as one of the Infallibles, or perfect beings who guide others to Allah. Also reflecting a personal loyalty, but to other semidivine mediators, are numerous Sufi sites, among them those dedicated to the Chishti-affiliated Sufi Order of the West and its founder, Hazrat Inayat Khan. For example, <> is the home page of a Chishti devotee from New Mexico, and it offers a broad appeal to numerous, non-Muslim spiritual paths, all under the canopy of a universal perspective of Sufism.

The huge conceptual gap between the IslamiCity sites and their Shi˓ite or Sufi counterparts illustrates the second major demurral from a cyber-utopia of the sort that Castells projects. Differences in virtual space will be as multiple and myriad as ground-level disparities within the umma. Not only will there be a limited number of Muslims who have access to the World Wide Web, but those who do become Muslim netizens will find many competing notions of Islamic loyalty and options for ritual practice. It will also continue to matter where one resides. In Malaysia or Turkey the government is less prone to monitor or to filter websites than in Saudi Arabia or Syria, and, while hacking can take place as easily within a cyber-Islamic environment as elsewhere, it will occur more often in border zones of actual conflict, such as Palestine and Kashmir. Because information technologies, like religious traditions, are inherently conservative, they tend to reinforce global structures and asymmetries rather than to bode a new era for civil society and transformative justice. The information technology revolution will continue to benefit diasporic Muslims more than their homeland coreligionists. The disparity between north and south, between rich and poor will be as evident, alas, among Muslims as it is among non-Muslims, at least for the foreseeable future.

See alsoGlobalization ; Networks, Muslim .


Bunt, Gary R. Virtually Islamic: Computer-Mediated Communication and Cyber Islamic Environments. Lampeter: University of Wales Press. 2000.

Castells, Manuel. The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1997.

Eickelman, Dale F., and Anderson, Jon W., eds. New Media in the Muslim World: The Emerging Public Sphere. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1999.

Mandaville, Peter. "Digital Islam: Information Technology and the Changing Boundaries of Religious Knowledge." International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World Newsletter, no. 2 (March 1999): 21–24.

Sardar, Ziauddin. Cyberfutures: Culture and Politics on the Information Superhighway. New York: New York University Press, 1996.

Bruce B. Lawrence Miriam Cooke

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