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History of the Internet - early global spread

Written by Ian Peter

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Let's look at the global spread of networks beyond the USA.

Fidonet, the first large network to connect personal computers, was established in 1983. By 1990 there were 2500 hosts all over the world, although mainly in western countries. A lot of these were for computer hobbyists, but meanwhile we were beginning to see some specific types of network appear.

Community networks were beginning to spring up everywhere. By 1991 Japan had the Watarese Area Network., and Australia had the Ipswich Global Links Network from 1994. These local government based networks were often seen as a catalyst for economic development - lots of areas around the world wanted to be the next Silicon Valley.

FreeNets were another model, with the most prominent being in Ottawa Canada and Cleveland Ohio. The Freenet model gave free access, and the service was paid for by people such as government bodies who wanted to get information out to the general public. FreeNets played a large role in community building, but the financial model was problematic and the cost of upgrades beyond the under-budgeted operators. FreeNets were important pioneers in many areas and the first introduction to networking for many people.

Inevitably experiments began linking regional areas. Some prominent early experiments were Bega and Norlink (Australia) Hometown and New Brunswick(Canada), and Wellington (New Zealand). These developments often combined with the growing telecottage movement, which provided community facilities where people could learn to use computers.

In addition to these more geographically centered activities, global communities of interest (later to become known as virtual communities) were starting to evolve.

One such network, and a major player in the early growth of the Internet, was the Association for Progressive Communications (or APC). Formed by the joining of PeaceNet and Econet in San Francisco with GreenNet in the UK in 1987, by 1989 the fledgling association had seven foundation countries providing major hubs. These connected to other countries with less established facilities, and through association with similar bodies such as Interdoc, and Poptel in the UK, many contacts and connections were coming on board.

The driving minds of the early network were Mark Graham from PeaceNet and Mitra Ardron from GreenNet. They saw that, by creating low cost host computers for social movements in various countries, they could spread the network quickly to a lot of non profit and activist groups who might otherwise not be able to afford to communicate. With the technical help of Scott Weikart and Steve Fram from Community Data Processing, they set out to create some simple messaging and conferencing software, and to make UNIX available on the IBM personal computer so that low cost hosts could be set up.

Meanwhile the Cold War was breaking down, and APC played an interesting part in that as well. By 1992 the US Government changed legislation to allow the export of computer chips and software to the USSR.(before that they were considered to be illegal exports) Very quickly Glasnet sprung up in the USSR, with satellite networks in many eastern European countries.

The Russian coups became a fascinating global event, with eyewitness accounts. "The tanks are coming, the tanks are coming" on the Internet from independent reporters on the scene. The Internet became part of the Russian people's struggle. Glasnet, the San Francisco/Moscow Teleport, and other facilities played an as yet undocumented role in the events which were to follow and change the face of global politics.

By the end of 1992, largely due to the pioneering efforts of people like Carlos Afonso in South America and Mike Jensen and Karen Banks in Africa, close to 100 countries were connected to activist networks - just a few more countries than the more mainstream academic and research networks which formed another strong development arm of the Internet. Major UNIX hubs fed information to smaller systems using Fidonet technologies in smaller countries. The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) played a major role in South American countries, and APC members assisted the development of networks suitable for smaller countries and regions, such as Pactok in the Asia Pacific region.

As governments started to realize that access to the growing net had social advantages, and that the socially disadvantaged should have special initiatives to encourage access, a number of government and charity sponsored initiatives began. HandsNet in the USA looked to address poverty issues. SeniorNet, naturally enough, encouraged access for senior citizens. In Australia, the Community Information Network, the brainchild of Hr Peter Baldwin, looked to provide access for people on low incomes. Most of these experiments became subsumed as the net grew, but they provided important roles in understanding the implications of access to or lack of access to the net.

Thus, even as early as 1994, there were significant forums arguing the case for universal access, and for access to the powerful information and communication features of the Internet to be regarded as a basic human right. In an age where a powerful communications media existed, the argument went, lack of access was denial of a fundamental human right - the right to communicate. These early initiatives provided the foundation for the digital divide initiatives which began in the late 1990s in an attempt to address the global imbalance in Internet usage.

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