The Internet is an extension of a computer network originally formed in the United States during the 1960s by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). Working under contract to the U. S. Department of Defense, ARPA initially connected computers at the Stanford Research Institute in California, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), and the University of Utah. This original network, the very first computer network, was called ARPANET (ARPA NETwork).
Scientists built ARPANET with the intention of creating a network that would still be able to function efficiently if part of the network was damaged. This concept was important to military organizations, which were studying ways to maintain a working communications network in the event of nuclear war. As ARPANET grew in the 1970s, with more and more universities and institutions connecting to it, users found it necessary to establish standards for the way that data was transmitted over the network.
To meet the needs of data transmission standards, computer scientists developed the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP). During the 1970s various government, scientific, and academic groups developed their own networks. Examples include the Department of Energy’s (DoE) Magnetic Fusion Energy Network (MFENet), the High Energy Physics NETwork (HEPNET), and the National Science Foundation NETwork (see NSFNET). In 1989 English computer scientist Timothy Berners-Lee introduced the World Wide Web.
Berners-Lee initially designed the WWW to aid communication between physicists who were working in different parts of the world for the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN). As it grew, however, the WWW revolutionized the use of the Internet. During the early 1990s increasingly large numbers of users who were not part of the scientific or academic communities began to use the Internet, due in large part to the ability of the WWW to easily handle multimedia documents.
A major challenge facing the continued growth of the Internet is the difficulty of providing enough bandwidth to sustain the network. As Internet applications become more sophisticated, and as more people around the world use the Internet, the amount of information transmitted across the Internet will demand very high bandwidth connections. While many communications companies are attempting to develop higher bandwidth technologies, it is not known whether the technology will be able to satisfactorily keep up with demand.
In order to accommodate the increasing number of users, the non-profit organization University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID) is working on the construction of Internet 2. Internet 2 will add more bandwidth, or available communication lines, to the current information superhighway in order to accommodate larger packets of data. UCAID members include representatives from universities, the government, and the computer industry. Another important question facing Internet growth is the issue of censorship.
Because the Internet has grown so rapidly, governments have been slow to regulate its use and to pass laws regarding what content is acceptable. Many Internet users also see such laws as an infringement on their right to free speech. In 1996 the Congress of the United States passed the Communications Decency Act, which made it a crime to transmit indecent material over the Internet. This decision resulted in an immediate outcry from users, industry experts, and civil liberties groups opposed to such censorship.
In 1997 the United States Supreme Court declared the act unconstitutional because it violated First Amendment rights to free speech. Lawmakers responded in 1998 by passing a narrower antipornography bill, the Child Online Protection Act (COPA). This law required commercial WWW sites to ensure that children could not access material deemed harmful to minors. In 1999 a federal judge blocked that bill as well, ruling that it too would dangerously restrict constitutionally protected free speech. Increasing commercial use of the Internet has heightened security and privacy concerns.
With a credit or debit card, Internet users can order almost anything from an Internet site and have it delivered to their home or office. Companies doing business over the Internet must have very sophisticated security measures in place so that information such as credit card, bank account, and social security numbers cannot be accessed by unauthorized users (see Computer Security). Similarly, government facilities, universities, and institutions must ensure that access to their computers over the Internet is strictly regulated.