A recent report from the World Wide Web Foundation has found that the web is becoming less free and more unequal, which has led to a lot of debate about net-neutrality, the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally. The main argument comes as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have said that they are against net-neutrality, whilst content providers are openly in favour of it. With this in mind, and in order to understand net-neutrality, we have to look back at the origins of the Internet and even before the Internet existed.
In 1962, the first discussion of a 'Galactic Network' took place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which led to a series of memos written by American psychologist and computer scientist, J.C.R. Licklider. These memos discussed the concept for a globally interconnected set of computers, through which everyone could quickly access data and programs from any site.
Soon after this, in 1968, funding was released for ARPANET, one of the first packed switched networks, and the pre-cursor to the modern internet. And, on 29th October 1969, the first ARPANET message was sent from UCLA.
Now, let's fast-forward to 1993, with the release of the Mosaic Browser, the first of its kind and what all modern internet browsers are now based on. In fact, most of today's modern browsers, like Chrome and FireFox retain a lot of the original characteristics of the original Mosaic GUI. This very quickly led to the founding of a company called Netscape in 1994. Netscape's browser was once the most widely used browser and the company developed a lot of the security which we rely on today to allow us to shop online.
So, you may wonder why I'm rambling on about internet lore. Well, to frame the current debate we need to look at what was going on around this time. We had companies like Netscape selling web server software, incorporating the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)/Internet Protocol (IP) into their products that would work on an "open" internet based on the foundation from ARPANET, and you also had companies like Microsoft, AOL, Novell, and Oracle all competing to create their own "private" internets or proprietary internets.
AOL is probably the best known example of a "walled garden" internet, where you could only access content approved or allowed by AOL. Similarly, MSN formed Microsoft in its early days, to keep its users "locked" in to their system. There were also competing technologies in terms of connectivity, such as protocols like NetBios and IPX/SPX, none of which were truly open like TCP/IP and none of which would allow anyone to connect to anyone. The implications of a proprietary internet were not good for business or consumers. Now, imagine if the company who "owned" this internet were to charge for every transaction, or every request for information?
If we look at what we have today, AOL is a media company, Oracle and Microsoft are software companies and the internet is open. Openness won in the end because that is what users wanted and the internet today is based on the idea that you don't have to use a specific piece of software. It allows you to connect freely, in most cases, to information, to share your views and has had more of an impact on society than anyone could have imagined. However, we are now facing a similar battle all over again.
There are large corporations who want to tax the internet, to control who has access to data and to allow the companies with the deepest pockets to succeed. If this was the way it always was, I can bet my next pay check there would be no Facebook, no YouTube and maybe no Google. What about the hundreds of new companies coming online every day, they would never get a fair chance.
What about the consumers? Being forced into a locked system, only having access to information that the company saw fit to allow? It doesn't bear thinking about does it?
Well this is the choice we face at the moment. How will it end? I don't know. All I know is the internet has been good to me. It has allowed me to find out all sorts of things that I would not know, provided me with endless hours of entertainment and allowed me to spend money faster than I can make it. The internet is based on the fundamental principal of openness and freedom of access to information. It is by no means like this everywhere but that is way we have to fight to ensure it remains at least as open as it is today.