An Overview Of The Internet
by Christina Graham
The Internet...just what is it? The Clinton-Gore Administration refers to it as the National Information Infrastructure (NII). In the Administration’s NII Agenda for Action, they refer to it as a “seamless web of communications networks, computers, databases, and consumer electronics that will put vast amounts of information at users’ fingertips”. In the congressional report it is defined as the international computer network of both Federal and non-Federal interoperable packet switched data networks.
The Internet (Net) began as a network connecting Defense Department sites and later added researchers and academics. In the past year and a half, commercial organizations, five million subscribers to consumer on-line services, the freenets, alumni of universities, and anyone else with the money to pay for Internet access have all suddenly stampeded onto the Internet. There are a lot of numbers floating around as to just how many people have access to the Internet. Nation’s Business reported that the Nielsen survey, conducted on behalf of the CommerceNet, estimated that 37 million people in the United States and Canada have access to the Net. Another source stated that the Internet is growing at a rate of 100 percent a year, and at that rate “every human on the planet will be connected in 10 years”.
The Internet uses the header (name, time, origin and destination addresses) and switches, attached to each information packet, to route the information to the right address. The programs for manipulating the information include the World-Wide Web (WWW), File Transfer Protocol (FTP), Email, Telnet and USENET Newsgroups. Web sites on the Internet are made up of “virtual pages” of information, which are capable of providing not only text but also still or motion pictures and sound. With so much information and entertainment available, it’s not surprising that there are minimum technical requirements for access.
The technology required to access the Internet include the following: a computer with a minimum of 4 megabytes of memory (to use Windows to access the World Wide Web), a modem to translate a computer’s digital code into a telephone line’s analog code (preferably with a minimum transfer rate of 14,400 bits per second), a telephone line, and an Internet Service Provider. It may take some time to get everything loaded and setup properly, but accessing the Net is virtually as simple as dialing the phone. The desired system configuration will vary depending upon the goals of the user. The basic user who wants to log onto the Net, do a little surfing, and maybe download a file, will be comfortable with the minimum equipment above. However, companies that want to establish a web-site, provide a home-page, or build a digital library will have additional needs to consider, such as storage space, high speed modems for faster transfer of multimedia, and compatibility of their hardware and software.
While Windows and Mac operating systems may be fine for the average user, in order to facilitate large multiple applications or for use on a server, UNIX is still the best choice, mainly because it is based on non-proprietary code and performs multi-tasking easily.
Although an access provider can get the user to the Internet, without some type of browser software, the novice user may not be able to get around, let alone find what he or she is searching for. Netscape is perhaps the most popular, but others are available including: Spyglass, Mosaic, and Gopher. Some users prefer to use a more indexed approach such as Yahoo, which is a widely used commercial Internet Directory. Currently, nearly 25,000 companies are listed in Yahoo, which can be found at http://www.yahoo.com. However, the best software in the world will not help you until you make the connection, and that’s where the access provider comes into play.
Our Government currently subsidizes providers such as BITNET (a nonprofit inter-university cooperative) and CommerceNet, and previously subsidized the main Internet backbone, the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. However, NSF has shifted the bulk of its funding to a new experimental network called the vBNS (Very-High-Speed Backbone Network Service).
On the private side, connections to the Net are numerous and varied in terms of services provided. The simplest and cheapest, a “shell” account, requires only your standard modem, but you need to know the specific commands to find the data you want. Fortunately, some of the larger consumer access providers include software to help make connection extremely simple. These providers include: America on-line, CompuServe, Microsoft Network and Prodigy. Additional National access providers include Netcom On-Line Communications Services Inc., Performance Systems International, and UUNet Technologies. Many small local providers offer very competitive rates for access but do not provide software. While providers of Internet access continue to emerge, many large companies are recognizing how lucrative the provider market has become. IBM is now offering access, complete with 800 numbers for use while traveling; and AT&T will soon enter the market, with other large companies, including phone and cable providers, to follow.
With all the excitement over the mass quantities of information available using the Internet and the flexibility to communicate across the globe, it’s not surprising that there are several unresolved issues lurking in the background which are rapidly moving into the foreground.
While there are several legal and market issues surrounding the Internet, six are briefly covered below. The first issue is privacy. Do companies have the right to monitor transactions that take place over the Internet? Although companies may not have the right to, many hackers have found the way to play private eye on the Net. One of them demonstrated his skill by collecting personal information about a woman in Dallas that included her birthday, political leanings, and checking balance. It took him one hour. Some companies are actually creating auditing software, which use clickstream monitoring to provide demographic information for use in marketing.
The second issue, security, is closely tied to privacy and may help consumers regain some of it. Two key technologies are emerging that may help secure electronic-commerce transactions: 1) public-key encryption, and 2) digital signatures. Other developments in 1996 that will help improve security are verification of signature and messages; the US Postal Service’s digital time stamp (similar to certifying letters); firewalls; secure servers; electronic money; and filtering software, which can be programmed to refuse to dial specified numbers. This filtering software can help parents restrict children’s access to pornography, which brings us to the third issue, censorship. While many believe that first amendment rights should protect us from censorship, many people believe that children should not be exposed to certain sexually explicit, perverse or violent content. However, there are products becoming available that will help parents take responsibility to ensure that their children are not exposed to obscene material. Additional options for restricting access include SurfWatch and Netnanny , which block access to whatever sites a parent or corporation specifies.
The fourth issue is Universal Access. Should the Internet be free and available to everyone (like television)? Given the hardware intensive nature of using the Internet, it is not likely that every home will be provided with access. However, access could be provided through public institutions such as libraries, schools, and post offices. In fact, President Clinton and Vice President Gore have set a goal of connecting all classrooms to the NII by the year 2000. Two other significant issues are intellectual property rights, which the NII Copyright Protection Act of 1995 addresses, and standards. The creation and use of standards, either government defined or industry driven will create more compatibility among products. The use of standards in Internet products will also make a variety of products easier to use. On the other hand, standards have been known to stifle progress. Some of the currently available standards or areas targeted for standards, include file formats, common command language, markup language (for creating Web pages with jump links) and platform protocols. With all of these issues and more surrounding the Internet, what is it’s chance of survival?
Without question the Internet is not only conceivable. It is here, it is working, and it is changing the way we do business, shop, make airline reservations, and communicate with the world. Government, educational institutions, commercial industry, private companies and individuals are on-line all over the world. Thirty-seven million users are on-line in the US and Canada and that number increases daily. The US government not only supports the Internet but is committed to providing greater accessibility.
However, there are some issues surrounding how long it will survive. Two potential reasons for its failure: 1) The Internet is 25 years old, but still growing at a rate of more than 10 percent a month; and 2) relatively speaking, it’s slow. The Internet backbone operates at 45 Mbps using T3 circuits, thirty times its 1991 speed. The vBNS will begin operating at 155 Mbps (OC-3), and will later accommodate speeds of 622 Mbps (OC-12), with an anticipated upgrade to 2.5Gbps (OC-48) in 1998. The increased speed may be necessary if “multicasting”, sending data from one source to multiple destinations, becomes a reality, and ultimately a consumer-demanded service.
We have entered into the information age, and the Internet as it stands or some upgraded version will more than likely survive, thrive and evolve with the times. The Internet will continue to change the way we communicate, learn, shop, socialize, and receive entertainment.