NGO bulletin boards 'invented the Internet' claim

On the 40th anniversary of the connection of the first two nodes of the ARPANET in California, a City University London academic has challenged established consensus regarding the ‘birth’ of the Internet.

The ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), the world's first operational switched packet network, is generally acknowledged as the Internet’s primary predecessor

However, in a 29 October lecture, Professor Peter Willetts argued that the Internet as it has evolved over the last 25 years is more truly the result of initiatives by non-governmental organisations – NGOs – during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Such groups were the first to develop the potential of interlinked bulletin board systems to connect groups in the voluntary and activist sectors, to promote online communities where information was shared freely and openly. They then took the lead in connecting different networks to each other.

The International Coalition for Development Action in 1982 started Interdoc, a bulletin-board conferencing and information exchange platform. This used the technologies available at the time to empower developing country NGOs by creating a global network for groups working for economic and social justice.

Willetts praised NGO leaders like Mitra Ardron in London (who founded GreenNet, one of the UK’s earliest ISPs, in 1984) and PeaceNet founder Mark Graham in San Francisco, who formulated the idea of linking the ‘progressive’ networks of the time, as unsung Internet pioneers. These two founded public networks in 1986. Then, they linked their systems, and by the end of the 1980s had a global Association for Progressive Communications, which even connected to NGOs in the Soviet Union.

Had it not been for these early visionaries, Willetts suggests, the Internet could easily have ended-up looking like “landscape of walled gardens” where online entities were highly protective of their commercial interests, and even email interoperability was a charged-for service.

Professor Willetts points out that computer scientists have dominated writing on the history of the Internet: "The many individuals who programmed Atari and Commodore games computers have been dismissed as 'hobbyists' by the professionals”. By the early 1990s, one such network, FidoNet, had several million users around the world. Research on FidoNet is difficult, Willetts reports, as their records are buried in Internet archives that Google does not search.

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