When I was a young scientist working on the fledgling creation that came to be known as the internet, the ethos that defined the culture we were building was characterized by words such as ethical, open, trusted, free, shared. None of us knew where our research would lead, but these words and principles were our beacon.

We did not anticipate that the dark side of the internet would emerge with such ferocity. Or that we would feel an urgent need to fix it.

How did we get from there to here?

While studying for my doctorate at MIT in the early 1960s, I recognized the need to create a mathematical theory of networks that would allow disparate computers to communicate. Later that decade, the Advanced Research Projects Agency — a research funding arm of the Department of Defense created in response to Sputnik — determined it needed a network based on my theory so that its computer research centers could share work remotely.

My UCLA computer lab was selected to be the first node of this network. Fifty years ago — on Oct. 29, 1969 — a simple “Lo” became the first internet message, from UCLA to Stanford Research Institute. We had typed the first two letters of “login” when the network crashed.

This quiet little moment of transmission over that two-computer communication network is regarded as the founding moment of the internet.

During its first 25 years, the internet grew dramatically and organically with the user community seeming to follow the same positive principles the scientists did. We scientists sought neither patents nor private ownership of this networking technology. We were nerds in our element, busily answering the challenge to create new technology that would benefit the world.

Around 1994, the internet began to change quickly as dot-coms came online, the network channels escalated to gigabit speeds and the World Wide Web became a common household presence. That same year, Amazon was founded and Netscape, the first commercial web browser, was released.

And on April 12, 1994, a “small” moment with enormous meaning occurred: The transmission of the first widely circulated spam email message, a brazen advertisement. The collective response of our science community was “How dare they?” Our miraculous creation, a “research” network capable of boundless computing magnificence, had been hijacked to sell … detergent?

By 1995, the internet had 50 million users worldwide. The commercial world had recognized something we had not foreseen: The internet could be used as a powerful shopping machine, a gossip chamber, an entertainment channel and a social club. The internet had suddenly become a money-making machine.

With the profit motive taking over the internet, the very nature of innovation changed. Averting risk dominated the direction of technical progress. We no longer pursued “moonshots.” Instead advancement came via baby steps — “design me a 5% faster Bluetooth connection” as opposed to “build me an internet.” A once-convivial online community transformed into one of competition, antagonism and extremism.

And then as the millennium ended, our revolution took a more disturbing turn that we continue to grapple with today.

By suddenly providing the power for anyone to immediately reach millions of people inexpensively and anonymously, we had inadvertently also created the perfect formula for the “dark” side to spread like a virus all over the world. Today more than 50% of email is spam, but far more troubling issues have emerged — including denial of service attacks that can immobilize critical financial institutions and malicious botnets that can cripple essential infrastructure sectors.

Other dangerous players, such as nation-states, started coming onto the scene around 2010, when Stuxnet malware appeared. Organized crime recognized the internet could be used for international money laundering, and extremists found the internet to be a convenient megaphone for their radical views.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning, facial recognition, biometrics and other advanced technologies could be used by governments to weaken democratic institutions.

The balkanization of the internet is now conceivable as firewalls spring up around national networks. We could try to push the internet back toward its ethical roots. It would be a complex challenge requiring a joint effort by interested parties — which means pretty much everyone.

We should pressure government officials and entities to more zealously monitor and adjudicate such internet abuses as cyberattacks, data breaches and piracy. Governments also should provide a forum to bring interested parties together to problem-solve.

Citizen-users need to hold websites more accountable. When was the last time a website asked what privacy policy you would like applied to you? You should be able to clearly articulate your preferred privacy policy and reject websites that don’t meet your standards. This means websites should provide a privacy policy customized to you, something they should be able to do since they already customize the ads you see. Websites should also be required to take responsibility for any violations and abuses of privacy that result from their services.

Scientists need to create more advanced methods of encryption to protect individual privacy by preventing perpetrators from using stolen databases. We are working on technologies that would hide the origin and destination of data moving around the network, thereby diminishing the value of captured network traffic. Blockchain, the technology that underpins bitcoin and other digital currencies, also offers the promise of irrefutable, indisputable data ledgers.

If we work together to make these changes happen, it might be possible to return to the internet I knew.

Copyright 2019 Tribune Content Agency.

(13) comments


i'm sure the first time the printing press was used to spread propaganda there was a similar shock. it's a new and unwieldy technology and we just need to figure out exactly how to regulate it and then do so. for one thing, net neutrality needs to codified into law -- we can't have comcast deciding that their customers can't view netflix unless netflix pays them a ransom. and anyway, there should be a public network available to all. ISPs have colluded to carve out little monopolies for themselves and it's horrible for everyone (for instance i literally have no choice but to use comcast or go back to dial-up). everyone likes to pretend that all this technology came from "the free market" but it didn't. every single major innovation was publicly funded before patents were sold for nothing to giant companies that then exploit us at every turn and want us to pat them on the back for it. it's time for us to rein it in




Great comment Sean. [thumbup]


The internet is a marvel to me. I looked on Google Maps at the location of a missile launch site on a hill in Germany I was on in 1965-66 to see what had become of the location. I saw Germans had built an observation tower there and they had a website about their tower with a guest comment section. I made a comment that I was there when the hill was used by the Army. A few days later I lady from the nearby town that worked at the local museum contacted me via email and asked if I had any pictures from my days there I could share with her. I sent her some pictures. She also asked me if I could provide some narrative about our life on the hill, which I did. Since, then we have exchanged emails every few months kind of like pen pals. Our stories and pictures have been featured in the local newspaper there several times. When I was there, there was essentially no communication available to me. I would write letters to home which would take about 8 days to arrive, and then it would take another 8 days for a reply. I applied for some college courses and it took me about 3 months for the process. Now, it can be done almost instantly.


Leonard, first, thanks for the hard work that you and your peers put into this, I was one of the 50 million or so in 1994, and had been using arpanet prior to that on military based projects. As for you statement: "The collective response of our science community was “How dare they?” Our miraculous creation, a “research” network capable of boundless computing magnificence, had been hijacked to sell … detergent?"... You answered your own question earlier by stating you never patented any of the technology, your desire to leave it open and free is the dichotomy of the internet.


Dumb letter written by a techno-quack. And God said, "I created the human race. How did it all turn out so bad?"




What a cheap pathetic post. How immature and thoughtless. And you're a principal? UGH


Too late.


You literally let the genie out of the bottle.


Laudable objectives, but impossible. It’s like asking everyone from here on out to obey the speed limit at all times.


Or even know what the limit is? Or there is a limit?

Ignorance runs deep.


Gary, from watching your comments over time, I feel you have been involved in various tech type endeavors throughout your professional career. As much as everyone hates what the internet has become, do you remember the joy of getting connected via POTS lines with modems (I still shudder at the anxiety of connecting 2 56K modems through channel bonding), or better yet, serial connections (2400 / 8 / 1 / none). I still have bad dreams of ifconfig eth0 and forgetting to end vi with (esc) wq! . I imagine you have a multi Mbps connection at home right now that took you all of 2 minutes to set up. I have Gig at home, and work with 10G+ networks daily. Heck, my phone puts several of my first computer builds to shame. The internet has essentially democratized the world, and yes, it comes with downsides. Remember when this comment board would have been BBS based, with flashy geeks running ASCII script images... We hate it, but we are mainlined to it now... Have a nice day.

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