The Internet is a communications medium that grew to prominence in the mid‐​1990s and has come to be an important worldwide information resource and conduit for expression and commerce. Its use has dramatically advanced liberty and prosperity by empowering individuals to disseminate communication and ideas as never before, as well as by improving competition and market processes in several areas. The widespread use of the Internet also has borne with it many challenges, among them in the areas of copyright law, individual privacy, and data security. Although the Internet is often regarded as offering hope of a utopian libertarian society, it is just as susceptible to use by governments to create extensive systems of surveillance and control.

Emerging from theoretical work on communications networks in the early 1960s, the Internet originated with ARPANET, a network designed at, and with funding from, the U.S. Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The core concept behind the Internet is packet‐​switched communication, the practice of converting sound waves and other data into digital form—sets of 1s and 0s—and then breaking the communication into “packets” that are then transferred by a distributed network to their destination. Packet “headers” contain numerical routing information that are read by routers all across the network. Each of them forwards the communication closer to its destination until it arrives and is converted back into analog form as text, sound, or video. The rules that govern the transmission of packets across the Internet are called the Transmission Control Protocol/​Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

A major step forward in the commercialization and growth of the Internet came in 1993 when the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign released the Mosaic Web browser. This browser was the first popular graphical Web browser that used a protocol called Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) to display information on attractively designed “pages” containing text and images that could be embedded with links pointing to other pages. The intuitive presentation of HTML pages helped to popularize the Internet’s “World Wide Web.” NCSA’s Mosaic browser was quickly overtaken in popularity by the commercial Netscape Navigator browser, which came out in 1994.

The Internet is often conceived of as having several “layers.” At the bottom lies the physical layer—the wires, cables, fibers, and routers over and through which packet‐​switched communications travel. Next, there is the logical layer, which contains the routing and presentation rules such as TCP/IP, HTML, and other protocols that govern the transfer of packets of data and their display. Next comes the application layer—the computer programs that people use to create and communicate content such as e‐​mail, Web pages, video, and voice. Finally, there is the content layer, which is the e‐​mail, Web sites, video, and other information that actually traverses this communications system.

The growth of the Internet and the use of TCP/IP have prompted telecommunications convergence and competition. The infrastructure originally built and optimized for wired telephone, wireless telephone, radio, broadcast TV, and cable TV is more and more being reconfigured to carry any kind of communication using IP. At the same time, new infrastructure such as fiber optics is being installed for purely IP communications. This development has had profound procompetitive effects on the telecommunications industry and has brought substantial benefits to consumers. Formerly, distinct networks that had provided cable TV or telephone services exclusively, for example, are competing with one another to provide voice services, video services, and Internet access services to consumers. Internet applications and Web sites also provide voice and video directly over consumers’ Internet connections. These developments have rendered separate regulatory regimes for each distinct service obsolete as the distinctions among them blur and as competition replaces public utility regulation in promoting consumer welfare.

The Internet and the World Wide Web also have spawned convergence and competition in news, entertainment, commentary, and the arts, which in turn has expanded the amount of information and the range of opinions that are available to the average person. Traditional media outlets have been pressed to provide their services in a new variety of formats, for example. Major newspapers have Web sites with equivalent or greater readership than their print editions, on which they also provide video and user‐​generated commentary and content. The Internet also has lowered barriers to competition in all forms of media. A variety of Internet applications and commercial Webhosting services give almost anyone seeking to publish information nearly worldwide reach. An endless variety of commentators, reporters, artists, and activists use the Internet to distribute and promote information, some in competition with established media and some for altruistic purposes. The result is that an endless ocean of information and ideas is available to the public via the Internet, including those embraced by libertarians, such as ideas of liberty, free markets, and peace.

Compared to the distribution of information prior to the development of the Internet, the widespread ability to transfer information on the Internet is a major step forward for communication and free expression. Advocates for all political and social views can collaborate and communicate using the Internet, and on protected Web sites they can discuss and share information about sensitive topics. They can distribute information and advocate positions broadly, each contributing to the competition in the “marketplace of ideas” with greater or lesser success at persuading others of their views. Blogging, for example, has become a prominent practice, used to disseminate ideas and opinion on every topic imaginable. Search engines “crawl” the Web to catalog the information that is available on it so they can guide their visitors to the subjects that interest them. Other uses of the Internet, such as peer‐​to‐​peer file‐​sharing networks, allow users to trade files directly among one another, disseminating information and entertainment quickly and cheaply. All of these things contribute to the wealth of ideas available to people and help empower individuals to improve their political and economic lives.

The Internet also is increasingly used for commerce. Many Web sites sell goods or services or carry advertising that supports their operations. This commercial activity has restructured economic life in several respects. Internet retailers like Ama​zon​.com, for example, give consumers access to a huge variety of goods that no physical retailer can match. This phenomenon has increased the value of publishers’ and artists’ “back catalogs.” Past publications and artworks, no longer found in retail stores or similar outlets, can often still be purchased online, which has given rise to the concept of “the long tail”—the long, diverse list of “unpopular” works and items that make up an increasingly significant part of society’s consumption.

Online marketplaces like eBay also have wrung inefficiencies out of the economy. Millions of items that consumers want, out of season or out of stock in any particular store, may be found and purchased online. Millions of items once destined for the trash have found their way to consumers who want them, at low cost to discover and buy. Many specialty markets and stores have cropped up online to give more people access to things they want. A large number of people supplement their incomes or support themselves entirely by selling online.

By freeing people to create their own business enterprises, the Internet is improving the quality of life for millions of people. This dynamic is fostered somewhat in the United States by the rules with regard to taxation of goods sold in remote commerce. Under “dormant Commerce Clause” analysis, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that remote sellers of goods cannot be made responsible for the collection of taxes for the jurisdiction to which the goods are being sent. Thus, many sellers of goods online do not have to collect and remit taxes to the governmental jurisdictions where the purchasers live, relieving sellers of a significant regulatory burden. This restriction is a challenge to jurisdictions that would put sales tax collection burdens on sellers outside their states. But it is just one of many challenges that the benefits of the Internet create for a number of institutions and interests.

Beyond taxation, the robust communication enabled by the Internet represents a threat to governments in a variety of ways. Autocratic governments are menaced by the potential that the Internet may be used by political organizations aimed at seeking reform, which could topple existing regimes. China is the world’s most notorious Internet monitor and censor. Its combined efforts to contain the power of the Internet have been called “the Great Firewall of China,” although it is far from the only country to control Internet communications or use the Internet as a tool of political and social control.

The Internet also can be used for criminal planning and criminal deeds, and for such things as terrorism planning and promotion. The U.S. government has reportedly been aggressive in monitoring communications in the conduct of its “War on Terror.” IP networks make data easy to collect, store, and analyze compared with the analog information on circuit‐​switched networks of the past. More information than ever is available to law enforcement and national security interests in the United States and around the world because of the Internet and digital communications, although some rarely used methods of encryption and routing can protect information from interception and collection.

In many ways, the Internet is like a giant copying machine, reproducing information time and time again as it flows from computer to computer. Many uses of the Internet challenge or violate copyright law, which vests the authors of creative works with rights to control the copying, and thus dissemination and use, of their works. Peer‐​to‐​peer file‐​sharing networks, for example, transfer a good deal of popular copyrighted material in violation of copyright law. The content industry, chiefly the recording and movie industries, have aggressively sought to stem the flow of their copyrighted content across the Internet. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act, passed in 1998, sought in various ways to limit the accessibility of copyrighted content online.

New business models in traditionally copyright‐​oriented sectors have begun to emerge, accommodating the difficulty of enforcing copyrights online. “Open source” software development, for example, makes a unique use of copyright law: Rather than controlling the making of successive copies, this model makes software available for copying and use subject to the caveat that any further copy or derivative work also be available for copying and use under the same terms. Creators in traditionally copyright‐​reliant industries are exploring business model options that allow them to profit from goods that are complementary to the expressive works they produce, instead of trying to profit directly from copyright control.

The Internet and online culture challenge individual customs and expectations, such as privacy, as well. Just as it carries copyrighted content, the Internet and Internet‐​connected computers prolifically create and distribute personal information about their users. Analog formats for communication of the past, such as printing on paper, naturally made information difficult to copy, transmit, and store. Societal expectations about privacy evolved consistent with that. The data collection and copying done by the Internet threaten the privacy expectations of older generations while leading younger generations to adopt expectations that are more permissive about personal information and privacy.

Another challenge that the Internet presents to both individuals and institutions is data security. The rapid emergence of online business, communication, and information‐​sharing over a decade or so caused rapid adoption of technical infrastructures like computers, routers, and software that are relatively insecure given the purposes to which they are being put. They are more susceptible to attack, from both outsiders and insiders, than real‐​world infrastructure like the buildings, pipes, safes, cabinetry, and fencing that secure tangible possessions. The methods used to secure things in the tangible world emerged slowly, and society has had hundreds of years of experience with securing physical infrastructure. Only a few short decades of work have gone into securing the “intellectual infrastructure” of the Internet, computing, and computers.

A great deal of security against crime or fraud could be added to transactions conducted over the Internet, and to the Internet generally, such as for national security purposes, if all users were required to be identified accurately whenever they use the Internet. This process would undermine important values like free speech and the benefits it offers for social and political change, but the possibility illustrates how easily convertible the Internet is to surveillance and use by governments for political and social control. Although many transactions do require the security offered by identification, anonymity also is an important protection for many other important uses of the Internet.

Packet‐​switched networks are relatively complicated, and the details of how they are managed as they carry more and more communications can be manipulated to affect the content that they carry and how well they carry it. With a small number of national Internet Service Providers (ISPs), some argue that there is insufficient competition among them to protect consumers against threats to their interests as Internet users. ISPs are in a position to degrade certain protocols; to throttle services that compete with their own offerings, such as voice or video; or even to censor communications based on its content. Proposals for prophylactic regulation of broadband Internet service have been put forward intending to prevent these problems from emerging. The capability of a legislature or regulatory body to successfully write and administer network management regulations without throttling innovation and competition, however, are drawn into doubts by opponents of such “’Net neutrality” regulation.

The Internet is a unique communications network based simply on packet‐​switching instead of continuous circuits, and its societal and political ramifications are enormous. Because it favors direct communication and organization among people, its use often favors liberty. However, the technical infrastructure of the Internet is easily convertible to surveillance and use by governments for political and social control. The meaning of the Internet for liberty will continue to play itself out as the Internet grows in prominence.

Further Readings

Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Center for Democracy and Technology. Updating Privacy Protections to Keep Pace with Technology. Accessed February 2006 from http://​www​.cdt​.org/​p​u​b​l​i​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​/​d​i​g​i​t​a​l​-​s​e​a​r​c​h​-​a​n​d​s​e​izure. pdf.

Leiner, Barry M., Vinton G. Cerf, David D. Clark, Robert E. Kahn, Leonard Kleinrock, Daniel C. Lynch, Jon Postel, Larry G. Roberts, and Stephen Wolff. A Brief History of the Internet. Available from http://​www​.isoc​.org/​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​/​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​/​b​r​i​e​f​.​shtml.

Raymond, Eric. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary. Cambridge, MA: O’Reilly Media, 2001. Available from http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/.

Searls, Doc, and David Weinberger. World of Ends: What the Internet Is and How to Stop Mistaking It for Something Else. Available from http://​world​ofends​.com/.

Jim Harper
Originally published
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