Fifty years ago today, the first permanent link between a computer at UCLA and at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) was formed. It was the first connection of ARPANET, which would grow into a large network of research and military computers and later become the public internet we know today. The unintended consequences of this connectedness on a massive scale would later bubble to the surface, and even the people who helped establish that first ARPANET connection seem very troubled about what the internet has become.
I learned a lot of this history when I visited UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock in Room 3420 in the engineering department’s Boelter Hall—the room where the first internet message was sent by a graduate student named Charley Kline to the scientist Bill Duvall at SRI on October 29, 1969. Kleinrock developed much of the theoretical groundwork for that first digital network and forerunner to the internet. But despite his convictions that the internet has had a net positive impact on the world, we spent a good deal of time talking about some of the ways the internet has evolved into something other than a force for good.
The downsides of a social internet
Kleinrock had a surprisingly clear view of what ARPANET might become even back in 1969. The one thing Kleinrock says he didn’t see coming was the rise of social media and social networks. And that’s where many of the internet’s biggest problems have incubated—things like election tampering, surveillance capitalism, bullying, fake news, deepfakes, revenge porn, and on and on.
Kleinrock says he initially saw those things as problems that the citizens of the internet would eventually react against and solve. “I used to say that the internet was going through its teenage years,” Kleinrock tells me. “But I don’t say that anymore.”
He now speaks resignedly about an internet that is inherently well-suited to be a playground for the worst instincts of human beings.
Most of the problems Kleinrock discussed happen within the context of social networks and other social spaces online. He tells me that the inherent fault of these places as social spaces is users’ anonymity and lack of accountability. Online, people make statements and take actions without having to take personal responsibility for them, Kleinrock says. They often don’t have to put their reputation on the line in the same way they might in a physical public space.
I used to say that the internet was going through its teenage years. But I don’t say that anymore.”
They might also regard other people’s internet personas as just dots on a screen, something less than real, and might find it easier to mistreat them online because of that. Because of their anonymity and flimsy relationship to others, it’s too easy to throw rocks, or spread ideas that aren’t factual.
Charley Kline, the grad student who sent the first internet message, says the modern internet can actuate and spread such bad impulses faster and farther than any other communications medium before it. “If you want to publish a pamphlet saying that somebody is a rapist, well, it’s a lot of work to do that,” Kline says. “Now you can do that in just a few seconds and spread it to millions of people, maybe even billions of people.”
To remedy the problem of identity and accountability, Kleinrock says he once envisioned a digital reputation that would attach to a person’s online identity. If someone is a habitual troll on Twitter, their digital reputation would show that. If they recommended a product that people ended up loving, that would be credited to them, too.
Predicting the internet’s democratizing force
Back in the ’70s and ’80s, ARPANET was a network for an exclusive group of highly skilled people—mainly scientists at universities, government contractors, or military research facilities. But there was no set of rules in place to maintain and preserve those old structures.
Boosted by the advent of the personal computer, the internet eventually was commercialized and offered to consumers. By the mid-’90s, millions of people were logging on. Kleinrock anticipated that large networks of computers would become a mass-market phenomenon, but he didn’t clearly see how it would come to be used.
The internet began as largely a “one-to-many” communication platform. A relatively small number of internet publishers created or curated content for a large number of netizens. But from early on, the internet had populist instincts. By the 2000s, the internet was rapidly becoming a many-to-many platform, a place where people could publish, or curate, their own content. They made their own videos for YouTube. They shared the news and information that fit with their worldview on Facebook and Twitter.
Nobody was thinking about [how] it could be misused, which has obviously happened.”
Unlike the rarefied network of Kleinrock’s time, the internet has instead become a great democratizing force. As a publishing platform, it’s made regular people into journalists, videographers, and pundits. It’s made housewives into fashion influencers, and basement-bound gamers into celebrities.
But this flourishing populist ecosystem, and the companies that do business there, has traditionally resisted rules and regulations, especially from the government. That goes way back to the start, with ARPANET. There was always a spirit of self-governance. That’s illustrated clearly in this helpful guideline, which was found in a 1982 network etiquette handbook from MIT’s AI Lab:
” . . . personal messages to other ARPANet subscribers (for example, to arrange a get-together or check and say a friendly hello) are generally not considered harmful,” it reads. “Sending electronic mail over the ARPANet for commercial profit or political purposes is both anti-social and illegal. By sending such messages, you can offend many people . . .”
That early internet didn’t have strict laws and regulations, but rather voluntary guidelines and an assumption that users wanted to maintain the goodness of their network.
It was also meant to create a sense of freedom, Kline tells me. “There was sort of a conscious attempt to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to restrict what can be done on this network,’ partly because by allowing it to be open we thought new things will get invented and we’ll figure out clever things we can do,” Kline says.
“But nobody was thinking about [how] it could be misused, which has obviously happened,” Kline says.
The responsibility of today’s internet barons
Kline points out that the people who were building ARPANET in 1969 never dreamed that millions of people would one day be on the same network. ARPANET’s creators can be forgiven for not looking four decades into the future at the problems of today’s public internet. But scientist Bill Duvall, who was on the receiving end of the first internet message 50 years ago, says today’s internet barons have no such excuse.
“There’s a social responsibility that has to go along with creating these things,” Duvall says. “As a group, I don’t think computer scientists have done very well at saying, ‘If I do this, this is going to happen, and I better do something to address that.'”
Yes, he’s referring to Facebook.
There’s a social responsibility that has to go along with creating these things.”
“When Facebook’s basically setting up something that can clearly be used for fake news, they should have at the same time been thinking about how do we control this,” Duvall says. “That wasn’t done, and we’re paying a penalty for that.”
Kleinrock, Duvall, and Kline all say that the internet, on the whole, has been transformative and good for the world. But I got the impression from all three men that the internet may have evolved to a place where more guardrails need to be put in place to protect users.
Duvall says that only the people who helped build and advance the internet—technologists—can truly understand the complexity of its problems. So it’s up to tech companies, not governments, to find and apply the technologies and policies that will fix the problems. To do that properly may require tech companies to put the interests of shareholders aside for a time, and do right by the societies in which they make their profits.