Surf's Up: Internet New Zealand Style
The Internet owes its origins to computer networking research and the US Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). In the 1960s computers had already become vital equipment for universities, big business and the government. They were pretty impressive pieces of architecture back then: large, cabinet-sized things with spinning tape wheels fixed in pairs so they looked like a cubist's idea of a human with hypnotic eyes. Numbers of these would be set in an environmentally controlled room and cared for by people in lab coats with plastic bags over their hair and cloth booties.
These institutions had rooms full of space-consuming computer equipment and no common way for the computers to talk to one another. A computer researcher named J.C.R. Licklider started spreading the word about the potential for sharing computer-stored information and resources by connecting computers worldwide to a telecommunications system. Leonard Kleinrock at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, researchers at the RAND Corp. and Britain's National Physical Laboratory simultaneously began proposing ways to move information between computers on a network. The method became known as packet switching, which reduces data into small packets which are then given directions and sent out by the computer onto the network. This data can then be retrieved by other computers and reassembled as needed.
The US Defense Department became very interested in the potential of this technique, as they wanted to create a communications network whereby information could be easily shared without relying on centralisation. Should any particular communications links go down, the information could be readily rerouted and still received by the person requesting it. The reason behind this sort of network was quite simple. Should the godless Russkies (before Glasnost, etc., of course) or the Chinese decide to toss a few atomic bombs at American cities, communications would not necessarily break down and vital information could still make it across the country via the surviving parts of the network.
ARPA began funding university computer research in order to create this system. On 2 September 1969 at University of California at Los Angeles, several researchers, including Leonard Kleinrock and Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the mouse), threw the switch on the first packet switching system and watched bits of information go coursing between two computers about 30 feet apart. The Net was born. By October 1969 UCLA computers connected with the Stanford Research Institute computers in Menlo Park, California and by the end of the year four Californian institutions were linked online.
ARPANet, as it was then called, was a real boon for sharing research amongst US universities. As more research groups became linked, other research groups wanted to be linked, given the speed with which ideas and information could be exchanged. With some prodding, ARPA agreed that it was in their interest to expand usage to include other researchers not necessarily focused on military projects. This trend of expanding the domain of appropriate usage as more people requested it, thanks to various enlightened network managers, snowballed. In 1983 ARPANet split into ARPANet for research, and MILNet for military use. In 1987 the National Science Foundation took over the maintenance of the Internet's backbone of connections through their network known as NSFNet. In March 1990 ARPANet was decommissioned. Now that people other than researchers and university students are flooding the Internet, NSFNet is passing the torch on again to commercial interests.
Within New Zealand a similar evolution has been taking place. New Zealand's connection to the Internet began with the need for researchers and academics to exchange information with colleagues overseas. In 1990, a group of educational institutions and research institutes set up the Tuia Society to provide and manage Internet services in New Zealand. The existing education-research network became Tuianet, and the University of Waikato became the gateway for New Zealanders to the international community. The University of Waikato, now known as NZGate, still provides the single most important gateway to the Internet for New Zealand users, but as the demand for Internet access has boomed, the university has been increasingly reluctant to play the role of commercial manager. As is happening overseas, the major telecommunications companies are now starting to supply and manage local Internet services. Telecom New Zealand and Clear Communications have both announced nationwide Internet connection services.
Making the Internet infrastructure commercial does make it more accessible to the general public. It's not the place of universities who are already strapped for funds to support commercial and general usage as well. However, with direct government support of the Internet, not only could the general public be included, it would also be easier to make the Internet a common carrier. (Telephone systems and the postal service are common carriers.) This is important in relationship to censorship laws and issues. Prodigy, the Sears/IBM owned computer communications network in the US, are renowned for their censorship of customers' messages. They consider their service a publication and reserve the right to edit or censor material. They even have an automatic filter that removes any messages which use rude words. They also regularly remove any criticism of the service by their own customers. Other American commercial services such as Compuserve, Delphi, America Online and GEnie can and have censored people's messages. Universities can and have as well, but various groups such as the American Association of University Professors, the American Library Association and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have been fighting to protect people's privacy and freedom of expression on the Internet.
It is understandable to some extent that commercial services have taken this position since censorship laws around the world differ, and who is responsible for a posting still hasn't been made clear. Here in New Zealand a private member's bill was introduced into Parliament, in an attempt to make service providers accountable for offensive material they may inadvertently store or make available to others. The Technology and Crimes Reform Bill (also known as the Rogers Bill after its sponsor and vocal proponent) attracted considerable public debate, and its future is uncertain. One Australian state recently proposed similar legislation, with service providers found storing or transporting offensive material to be summarily shut down. In the US a California electronic bulletin board was prosecuted by a court in Tennessee for carrying sexually explicit material. The material itself was legal in the state of California, but as someone in Tennessee retrieved it onto their computer, the court was willing to view the case as being under its jurisdiction.
The world of the Internet has no boundaries and no controls and -- until now -- no thought police. In an ideal world, the person publishing material would be responsible for what they publish, and the person viewing material would be responsible for what they view.