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The Internet's Founder Never Thought It Would Get This Bad

HuffPost logo HuffPost 9/2/2015 Alexis Fitts


On Sept. 2, 1969, Leonard Kleinrock strung a 15-foot cable between two computers, hoping it would help them converse. A professor of computer science at the University of California, Los Angeles, Kleinrock and a group of colleges had been tasked by the government to build a computer communication system, dubbed "ARPANET" by the group. 

Their system would form the foundation of the modern Internet, but the topic of when it came into being is sharply debated. Most say it began when the professors connected the aforementioned cable. Some, including UCLA, contest that the Internet was born almost two months later, on Oct. 29, 1969, when the network finally passed along its first message. (That message was supposed to be a single phrase, "login," but the researchers only managed to type the first two letters before the computer crashed.) 

At the time of its conception, ARPANET was an experiment designed to test a way of freely exchanging information. The emphasis in this arrangement was on freedom. The scientists created a group of their graduate students and turned over many of the tasks of gearing up the system. It was a symbolic way of giving over the system to the people. As Kleinrock later wrote, the exchange shifted control "to the people who were using the net, and not in the carriers, the providers or the corporate world." 

Much has changed. While the initial system was used only by the small group that created it, it wasn't long before it expanded -- first to computer scientists, then to other academic scientists and, finally, with the creation of the World Wide Web, to the world at large. 


Part of what made the system so dynamic was the breadth of people this openness attracted. Other forms of communication, like the telegraph, printing press and television, could only move information to a select group. A single document on the Internet, however, could reach anyone with a connection. 

But that openness comes with a dark side. In a paper written in 2004 for the 35th anniversary of ARPANET, Kleinrock admitted he had never foreseen the modern version of the system. "Who ever thought that we would reach a billion users," he wrote, further wondering if he would have changed the system, had he known the end result.

"A system that is founded to include any and all information -- contributed by anyone who chooses to contribute -- will naturally include some pretty terrible stuff," Kleinrock said.

“Gone are the days when we could trust what came to us through the net, when we could expect that what was directed at us was relevant, useful, accurate and benign," he wrote. "Now we find ourselves confronted with junk, attacked by viruses, denied access, worried about our privacy, and confused about who can provide relief to these and other concerns." 


His paper grapples with a difficult issue, one that's even more relevant for the Internet of today: A system that is founded to include any and all information -- contributed by anyone who chooses to contribute -- will naturally include some pretty terrible stuff. Advocates of the "net neutrality" principal argue that the very premise of the Internet is based in the idea that all information should be treated equally on the web.


But even the staunchest net neutrality backers balk at how to deal with the web's worst content. We're all in favor of revolutionaries in totalitarian countries using the Internet to communicate -- but what about when the Islamic State group begins using it for recruitment? Social media companies should allow anyone to create a profile -- but what happens when a personal profile is connected with a violent event, as in the case of Virginia shooting suspect Vester Flanagan? 


It gets even more complicated when the rules intended to allow free access begin to contradict each other -- like when free and open comments on social platforms become harassment that specifically targets women, people of color and members of the LGBT community and effectively cuts off their Internet free speech. 


Now that the Internet is a diffuse conglomeration of things, much of the debate around How-Much-Information-Is-Too-Much is being worked out, not by the web's founders, but by platforms like Twitter and Facebook, which bear the brunt of the moderation burden.

As for Kleinrock, his paper reveals no easy solutions. He writes that it is "essential" to maintain the Internet's history of open access and shared ideas, but that somehow these ideas must be managed.

Without management, Kleinrock writes, "then we will see a slowdown in Internet use and acceptance; if this happens, all of us lose."  


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