Happy Birthday, Internet!

Published September 24, 2004

Here’s to breaking out the cake and the streamers!

On September 2 the Internet turned 35. It was on that date in 1969 that computer scientists experimented with using a direct cable connection for computers to exchange data. The rest–e-mail, the World Wide Web, and the domain-naming system–is history.

Turning 35 is indeed a significant event. As cliched as it sounds, this milestone encourages people to consider not only where they have been, but where they are headed.

Growing Pains

As the Internet matures, it must endure some growing pains–one of which is how to deal with spam. Unsolicited e-mail, says the Radicati Group, a technology marketing research firm, costs each Internet user the equivalent of $50 per year. A recent article in InfoWorld contended that figure could soon quadruple. Some pundits claim technology created in the private sector will provide a solution to the spam menace. Others say governments need to get involved.

A similar divide exists when you look at other controversial aspects of the Web, such as the way it is used to spread pornography and hate literature or its current difficulties in accommodating languages other than English. Some countries even want the United Nations to have authority over some aspects of the Internet, contending the technology is a kind of global public utility.

Though it’s been 35 years since that first computer connection, in terms of its commercial and cultural impact, the Internet is barely out of infancy. Even so, it is quickly being burdened with adult responsibilities. Governments in China, Cuba, France, and India want certain Web content censored. Law enforcement wants to be able to tap Internet protocol communications and is asking private enterprise to design a Gestapo-like hook into all new networks. Consumer “activists” insist there is a “digital divide,” and that Internet access is an entitlement that should be included in our country’s already misguided and mismanaged universal service subsidy program.

Hitting its Stride

Government regulators often decide that an industry is “mature” and then saddle it with legal obligations akin to a public utility. But we should not freeze the Internet or slow its growth in order to censor speech, spy on the citizenry, stop child porn, or hinder other bad activities that occur with any enabling technology.

The Internet is just beginning to hit stride. Proposals for resolving governance or security issues or providing access to the underserved must be judged at least in part according to the degree they will allow the Internet’s dynamism to persist.

Braden Cox ([email protected]) is technology counsel for the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s Project on Technology and Innovation. Neil Hrab ([email protected]) is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at CEI.