The 50 most significant moments of Internet history

The Internet has revolutionised the way we live, over almost 50 years of development. In this feature, we detail the 50 defining moments we feel are most significant to the Web

Back in 1995, Time magazine published a cover story called 'On A Screen Near You'. It highlighted the results of an 18-month Carnegie Mellon University study (with the dated title 'Marketing Pornography on the Information Superhighway') that looked at how much porn there was on the Net. And as demonstrated by the magazine's cover image of a shocked little boy in front of a computer, the Internet was overrun with porn and perverts, and the kids weren't safe any more.

But it was the nature of the article itself that was interesting. It focused on bulletin board systems and newsgroups, dial-up modems, and terms like 'Information Superhighway', 'cyberporn', and 'phone bill'. Times have changed. But even in 1995, the Internet -- as opposed to the Web -- had seen a couple of decades of development. And it's now had over a decade more. It's given us hundreds and hundreds of milestones; thousands of defining moments.

We decided to plough the history of the entire Internet, from the roots of its underlying technology, to the Web properties that helped it explode, the litigation it endured on the way and disasters companies have suffered as a result of the Net's popularity. We've picked 50 of what we think are the most significant moments, in ten categories spanning almost 40 years of Internet history:

Chapter 1) In the Beginning
Chapter 2) Wiring the Web
Chapter 3) All About Email
Chapter 4) Welcome to the Social
Chapter 5) Online Media
Chapter 6) Web Property
Chapter 7) Web 1.0
Chapter 8) Web 2.0
Chapter 9) Law and Order
Chapter 10) Most Epic Fails

We've given credit at the end to some of the notable mentions that didn't make the final list, but we encourage you to add your own suggestions in the comments below. After all, with close to 50 years of Internet development, our list can at most highlight only one development per year.

So, without further ado, we'll begin over the page with some of the earliest days of the Internet as we know it, in 1974. -Nate Lanxon

The early days of the Internet. The waking of the Web. We decided upon these five moments between 1966 and 1990 as being crucial to the future of the Web.

ARPANET, as it would become, was not in fact a Command and Control System that would survive a nuclear attack, but simply a military computer network for sharing data across long distances. It influenced the creation of the Internet, and was initially instigated by a $1m funding by then-ARPA director Charlie Herzfeld, to then-IPTO director Bob Taylor, a Texan.

'A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection' was a paper published in 1974 by Vinton G Cerf and Robert E Kahn. It detailed what would eventually be called TCP/IP -- the packet-switching technology that makes the entire Internet possible. It's what gets your data from A to Z, even if most of the Internet implodes, and is possibly the most significant development in Net history.


Described as 'administrative entities', Internet pioneer Dr Jon Postel introduces the top-level domains .com, .org, .gov, .edu and .mil in one of a series of documents called Request For Comments, which were papers published by the Internet Engineering Task Force. Postel also ran and managed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, which was set up to coincide with the introduction of the domains.


After reading in a 1984 magazine article about an efficient lossless compression algorithm called LMZ, CompuServe developers released the GIF image, not knowing the algorithm had a patent pending. The Graphics Interchange Format became insanely popular for its efficiency, and years later transformed the Web into full colour. In 1986, Unisys successfully patented the LZW algorithm, but did nothing to stop CompuServe. A few years later, the two companies banded together and decreed developers must pay to use the format. Unhappy developers revolted.


British CERN employee Tim Berners-Lee saw that the European Organisation for Nuclear Research needed a more efficient way for scientists to share information, much like ARPA. And just like that, the World Wide Web began as a rudimentary experiment with hypertext. The final project proposal to CERN in 1990, entitled WorldWideWeb: Proposal for the HyperText Project, was Berners-Lee's way of saying, "Hello. I'd like to invent the Web."

With the foundations of the Web in place, it was time to build the house itself. Our five selections underly certain developments that contributed to the crafting of the modern Web.


In 1992, long before Firefox and Internet Explorer, there were a few browsers knocking about, including Erwise, Viola and Arena. But the first Web browser to really take off was called Mosaic. Developed by Marc Andreessen, a student at Illinois University, it ignited the explosive growth of the WWW and interest in Web sites and was eventually ported to the Macintosh OS by Aleks Totic, a Yugoslav. The 1.0 release was made available in April 1993.


After the success of Mosaic, Andreessen founded Netscape, in April 1994. It then released in beta the follow-up to Mosaic -- a browser called Mozilla, later released as Netscape Navigator in December. But before that, in October, Andreesson set his company to work on making sure sensitive data transmitted over the Web was encrypted for security. The answer was SSL, or Secure Socket Layer, and it's still the industry standard in use today.


Half of the Web sites in existence use servers running Apache. It's completely free, open-source HTTP server software, responsible for dishing out Web pages, and succeeded the HTTP daemon developed by Rob McCool in the 90s. Apache fuelled an explosive growth of the Web, and up until around 2000, even Microsoft's Hotmail ran on Apache.


Macromedia Flash started out life around 1995 as pen-and-tablet computer drawing software SmartSketch, developed by FutureWave Software. Its name eventually changed to FutureSplash Animator and was then sold, in December 1996, as animation software to Macromedia, and became Macromedia Flash 1.0. Now owned by Adobe, Flash is installed on over 95 per cent of the world's PCs, mainly to let people waste time at work .


RSS feeds are based on the XML language and let users subscribe to a Web site's content using an RSS feed reader. They first surfaced as the scriptingNews format, developed by Dave Winer in 1997. In 1999, Netscape developed RSS 0.90 -- a similar XML-based format, but Netscape abandoned the development of the format around the turn of the Millennium. Not only did RSS lead to the accessibility of blogs, but podcasting is by definition reliant on RSS.

Before the WWW, back on ARPANET, email was responsible for over 70 per cent of all network traffic, making it an even more important cog in the Web's story.


Electronic messages date back to the time-sharing terminals of the 1960s, but the first landmark step towards today's email was made when computer programmer Ray Tomlinson sent the first 'network email' (between more than one machine, as opposed to messages sent between single terminals) using a program he wrote called SNDMSG. Tomlinson was also responsible for introducing the '@' symbol into the email standard.


Email was developed gradually throughout the 1970s before a global standard was agreed in the early 90s. It was during this development that Her Majesty The Queen, best known for owning small dogs and having a large house in London, sent her first email from an Army base. It marked the Internet's newly perceived importance and potential as a global game-changer.


The first unsolicited email advertisement was sent from one employee -- Gary Thuerk -- of DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation, inventor of the minicomputer) to 400 other users of ARPANET. It promoted DEC's new range of System-20 minicomputers, asking recipients to pop along to a product demonstration.


Hotmail was the first major Web-based email provider, conceptualised by Sabeer Bhatia and Jack Smith in 1995, launched in 1996, and bought by Microsoft in 1997 for $400m. The deal is a massive milestone in modern communicative history and extended what was previously only available behind an Internet service provider to any user on any networked computer in the world.


By 2004, Hotmail offered users of its free email service just 2MB of storage, while Yahoo offered 4MB. So when Google announced it was launching a free email service with 1GB of storage, a News.com reader wrote "This sounds like an April Fool's joke if I've ever heard one." In their defence, it was 1 April. But it sparked a paradigm shift in the free email world, with major Web-based email providers now providing gigabytes of storage as standard.

The Internet has always been a sociable place, whether you wanted to talk about movies and software, or techniques for ensnaring Oompa Loompas for bondage picnics. Our choices for this section highlight the importance conversation has had as the Net developed.


Before any online chat service used today, there was Usenet, and it still exists. In some ways one of the first peer-to-peer systems, Usenet was, and is, a vast discussion service, and the precursor to every Web-based message board and Internet Relay Chat application used around the globe.


Where discussions were called 'conferences', The Well was the intellectual watering hole and the hub of intelligent debate for over two decades. Luring in the world's geeks, futurists, philosophers and debate-lovers from all walks of life, it started life as a BBS, but now hosts a more modest community via the Web. Notably, the EFF's founders met through the service, and it was a highly respected, influential community in its heyday.


A Department of Information Processing Science employee at the University of Oulu, Finland, Jarkko Oikarinen created the IRC client with the desire to expand upon the popular BBS systems, in order to facilitate real-time chat. In less than 12 months, IRC had proliferated across the globe, running on around 40 servers.


Almost a decade before Skype released its first client, an Israeli company called VocalTec released Internet Phone, which is regarded as the first commercial VoIP application for desktop computers. We were all rocking dial-up modems at this point, but the software's ability to deal with slow connections and Internet packet loss helped it pave the way for VoIP to hit the mainstream.


Although not the first instance of real-time chat via computer terminals, ICQ was the first global, GUI-based instant messaging client, and its popularity exploded in the late 90s. It was created by another Israeli company, Mirabilis, and was quickly acquired by AOL in 1998 for just over $400m, despite the fact that AOL ran its own IM network, AOL Messenger.

One of the Web's greatest benefits (particularly to a site's audio editor!) has been the painless distribution of media. It's easier now than ever before to disseminate your music, movies and pictures, and our choices for this section highlight the road online consumer media has taken. 


MP3 is probably the most common format for music on the Internet, and has been hugely popular for over a decade. It fuelled the digital music revolution, it's the codec behind YouTube videos, it saturates P2P networks and it's now the must-use format for DRM-free digital music downloads. This ancient patent marked its public arrival.


Radio HK, founded by Norman Hajjar, was the first full-time, Internet-only radio station that began by broadcasting music from unsigned and independent bands. It's estimated the station reached 100,000 people in 46 countries and held a trial license from ASCAP, making it a pioneer for instigating the legitimate broadcasting of Internet music.


Just a month after being created and two months before getting its first funding, 18-year-old Sean Fanning's Napster application enabled the first of billions of MP3s to be passed over its service. It was instrumental in the Internet permanently changing the music industry.


Once the first BitTorrent client -- written by the protocol's inventor, Bram Cohen -- was released (initially in July 2001, but in a usable public state in October 2002), it was only a matter of time before the application, its variants and associated Web sites changed the face of global media distribution. BitTorrent is generally free to use and ridiculously efficient.


YouTube ushered in the era of Flash-based video and global Web-based video sharing. Founded by three ex-PayPal employees and acquired for $1.6bn by Google in 2006, YouTube has been at the front of the Web-based video revolution. Despite criticism of its low-quality videos, it hosted the first official online American Democratic presidential debate.

It's no secret that the Internet isn't just about sending email, reading the news and searching for hilarious photos of well-proportioned ladies wearing occasion-specific headgear -- useful utilities, archives, stores and tools exist online, too. We've examined five extremely important ones, the first of which highlights the branding significance of Web domains.


One of the most valuable domains ever created, Sex.com went through a years-long battle for ownership shortly following the birth of the modern Web, after it was stolen from its owner, Gary Kremen, earning the thief tens of millions of dollars. The case highlighted how lucrative domains and Web business could be, even in the early days.


Brewster Kahle created the Internet Archive after inventing the Wide Area Information Servers (WAIS) system in 1989. His goal for the IA was to archive the Web sites, text, images, video and audio contained within the entire Internet, and to make it universally available -- for free -- to everyone, for ever.


Co-founder of Sun Microsystems Andy Bechtolsheim cut Google a $100,000 cheque in this month, just a decade ago. He was the first outside investor in the search giant which, at the time, wasn't even a legal entity. Two weeks later it was, as Google Technology Inc, and the rest is history.


A pin was about to pop the dotcom bubble as SourceForge.net -- a free repository for open-source code, projects and applications -- opened its doors. Not being over-ambitious, it survived amid financial difficulties and now hosts over 150,000 open-source projects within a 1.9 million-strong community of worldwide developers and groups.


With just 200,000 songs but all major record labels on board, Apple's iTunes Music Store launched and became the first Web store to sell major-label music legally for download. The software initially only ran on the Mac, but it allowed purchased songs to be played on iPods and it sold over a quarter of a million songs within 24 hours.

It depends on who you ask, but Web 1.0 is usually seen as the era of the Web prior to the bursting of the dotcom bubble, when sites were mostly static pages and information was simply being made available on the Internet, rather than exclusively for it. We've avoided including short-lived 'bubble businesses' in this list of five defining moments of Web 1.0.


The Tech is MIT's campus newspaper and was the first newspaper to be available on the Web. Its Web server was the first to serve up a complete newspaper, predating every newspaper in existence's Web presence. Popular 2008 opinion claims print magazines and newspapers will be completely replaced by online versions, making The Tech even more notable.


In February 2008, Microsoft tried to buy Yahoo for $44.6bn, but Yahoo declined. Not bad, considering Yahoo began in a trailer. It was founded by David Filo and Jerry Yang -- two electrical engineering PhD candidates -- and they simply wanted to catalogue interesting Web sites. 'Jerry and David's Guide to the World Wide Web' was its original name. Thankfully the name was shortly changed to Yahoo, which they backronymed into 'Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle'. Less thankfully, they insisted on sticking an exclamation mark after it.


Founded by Jeff Bezos the previous year, Amazon is not one of the greatest success stories of the Internet -- it's one of the few that survived the epic dotcom bubble burst in 2000, despite having to fire much of its workforce, posting a yearly net loss of $1.4bn according to Amazonia, and failing to excite the world as a publisher of mostly public domain books (did you know that?), all in the same 12 months.


Back when the site began as AuctionWeb -- selling a broken laser pointer to a collector of broken laser pointers -- you didn't have to pay to list or sell the crap stashed in your garage. That eventually changed, earning eBay founder Pierre Omidyar billions. Apart from turning a profit from the start, not to mention surviving the dotcom bubble, what makes eBay particularly interesting is that it relies on its users being honest. And interested in buying utter rubbish.


On 10 January 2000, America Online announced it was to acquire Time Warner for $160bn, creating a $350bn corporate giant and the largest media company on the planet, in the largest acquisition in corporate history. Analyst Phil Leigh told CNET News at the time, "If it hasn't been evident to most of us yet, it should be obvious to us now that the Internet is about audio and video and not just merely text and graphics." Apparently AOL knew that, too, and bet $160bn on it being true.


The current era of the Internet is often dubbed Web 2.0, but it's really just an evolution of Web 1.0. Much modern Web 2.0 technology got started at the dawn of the Web 1.0 era, and has evolved over the last ten years to give us the advanced interfaces and online applications we rely on today.  


Another Netscape great, and first launching with Netscape Navigator 2.0 as LiveScript, Brendan Eich's JavaScript got its name after a collaboration with Sun Microsystems in December of the same year. Now stupendously prolific, JavaScript helped enable interactivity within Web sites, and now underpins Ajax -- the modern Web technology that enabled desktop environment-like interactivity on sites such as Google Docs, Flickr and millions of blogs and Web 2.0 properties.


Jorn Barger first coined the term 'weblog' after 'logging' things he found on the 'Web' on his site RobotWisdom. He's still a blogger. But it was later, around April 1999, that Peter Merholz invented the word 'blog' after deciding to pronounce 'weblog' as 'wee-blog', but deciding it was too long a word.


Mere months after Merholz introduced the word 'blog' to the Webosphere (we can coin words too), Pyra Labs launched Blogger, allowing the world to easily create their own blogs, for free. Pitas.com launched its similar free weblog service earlier, in July, but Blogger stole the show, ultimately being acquired by Internet behemoth Google.


Originally launched atop the commercial .com domain before switching to .org, Wikipedia is now one of the most visited sites on the Web, and testament to the possibilities of harnessing the Wisdom of Crowds -- one of the fundamental aspects of what is known as Web 2.0.


Originally a hub for just tech news, digg has since expanded into many new areas, including politics, entertainment news and after months of user requests, images and videos, too. It's a socially moderated news site, run by its users, and one of the most successful products of the Web 2.0 era in terms of popularity, despite its lack of a successful acquisition.

The history of the Internet is chock-full of stories of piracy, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks and viruses. Most of them are interesting, lots of them are hilarious, some are unthinkably frustating. Our selection of five reflects some of the more recent examples.


Just 15 years old, Mike 'MafiaBoy' Calce launched a crippling DDoS attack in 2000, hitting 11 super-massive Web companies, including CNN, Dell, eBay, Amazon and Yahoo, collectively costing them, according to analyst estimates, close to a billion pounds as a result. Armed with an Internet connection, even a teenage script kiddie can inflict cataclysmic devastation.


In our favourite case of the RIAA being a blood-sucking leech on the jugular vein of the music community, it was reported that the organisation filed a lawsuit against 83-year-old computer-hating Gertrude Walton, accusing her of sharing 700 songs on the Internet. That would be sleazy enough on its own, but matters were made worse when it came to light that dear old Mrs Walton -- who didn't even own a computer, according to her daughter -- had died the previous year. Tactfully, the RIAA dropped the case.


Imprisoned for a decade for allegedly divulging state secrets, Chinese journalist Shi Tao was arrested after Yahoo co-operated with the Chinese authorities by handing over personal information that linked him to the crime. The text he was convicted for sending to foreign Web sites reported the authorities' concerns surrounding the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.


In 2006, Swedish police raided PRQ -- host of the enormous Pirate Bay BitTorrent tracker -- confiscating its servers, resulting in mass protests. Only a few servers contained Pirate Bay files, leading to ten affected sites suing the Swedish government. Over 100 sites were wrongfully forced offline and the Bay was relocated, restored from backups and back online after three days, with huge numbers of new users thanks to all the media coverage.


digg's enormous and usually devoted users revolted en masse on May Day 2007. The site's staff tried to take the reigns of the community-driven news site, by taking down digg submissions that were linking to a hexadecimal code used for circumventing copy protection on HD DVDs -- and banning its users -- in response to a cease-and-desist demand from the MPAA. Users bombarded the site with duplicate posts in protest, utterly dominating the site's home page, and digg eventually gave in.

Finally, before we move on to our list of honourable mentions, we want to take a look at some organisational and technological disasters incurred online over the years. This topic alone could have 50 entries, but we've picked what we think are the most significant five of recent times.


As part of its war on honest customers, Sony BMG in 2005 surreptitiously installed malware on its customers' PCs, when they tried to play certain albums on their computer. It was technology called a rootkit, typically used by experienced hackers to infect unprotected machines. The installation left at least half a million computers vulnerable to malicious attack in over 150 countries.


If you were an AOL user in August 2006, searching for pictures of decapitated people and how to kill your wife, you may have been one of 650,000 AOL customers whose private search data, terms and sites visited, were accidentally made public by AOL, and scoured for personally identifiable information, potentially by millions of Web users.


In one of the most ironic mistakes in history, Apple's contracted iPod manufacturer accidentally shipped video iPods containing a Windows virus. It was a backdoor trojan known as RavMonE, and didn't pose any risk to Mac users. Apple said in a statement that it affected less than 1 per cent of iPods built after 12 September 2006, but it's likely those customers are now making up a large percentage of Microsoft's Zune userbase.


Just over a year ago, Viacom issued a DMCA take-down notice to YouTube asking it to remove a clip taken from its VH1 show Web Junk 2.0 -- a show that highlights amusing videos on the Web. Problem was, the clip focused on a YouTube video created by the user who uploaded the video Viacom was objecting to. Viacom had not sought permission to use the video in the first place, but still felt it was justified to issue a take-down notice when it was re-uploaded as part of one of its shows. Double standards don't come funnier than this.


In a leaflet delivered to hundreds of locals advising them on the best ways to protect their homes, police in Sussex misspelled their own domain name, pointing interested readers accidentally to a police-themed gay porn Web site. The link should have read www.sussex.police.uk, but was instead printed as www.sussexpolice.co.uk, which featured everyone's favourite gay police movie, Truncheon Meat. In 2003, CNET UK's sister site ZDNet UK reported another Sussex police tech fail, when their in-house computers were knocked offline by a computer worm.

Even a list of 50 significant moments is small when discussing several decades of history. Our original list of researched moments contained almost 200 events.

Below are some of the ones that made the final list of around 100, but not the 50 you've just seen. You are, of course, encouraged to leave what you consider to be the most important moments, in our comments section below below, or discuss them with us in the dedicated thread in our forums

Honourable mentions from 'In the Beginning'
1978
 - First BBS system online in America
1983 - FidoNet online
1984 - Cisco founded
1985 - .uk domain extension introduced

Honourable mentions from 'Wiring the Web'
1981
- Hayes Communications creates the Smartmodem
1993 - CNET founded
1994 - First mainstream banner ad with click-through rates used
1995 - Internet Explorer created

Honourable mentions from 'All About Email'
1982
- Dr Jonathan Postel proposes SMTP protocol
1989 - Lotus Notes email software released
1996 - Microsoft releases Internet Mail and News 1.0
1998 - BlackBerry 850 launches

Honourable mentions from 'Welcome to the Social'
1991
- AOL begins development of AIM, releasing six years later
1998 - Open Diary launched
2002 - Friendster founded
2003 - MySpace relaunched as social network

Honourable mentions from 'Online Media'
1991 
- First networked webcam set up inside Cambridge University
1995 - RealAudio version 1.0 released
2007 - BBC iPlayer launched
2007 - iTunes launches DRM-free store with EMI on-board

Honourable mentions from 'Web Property'
1994
- World Wide Web Consortium founded by Tim Berners-Lee
1995 - AltaVista search engine launched
1997 - First instance of BBC News Web site goes live
1997 - Heat.net gaming network starts up
1999 - Goatse.cx shocks unwary surfers
1996 - DoubleClick founded

Honourable mentions from 'Web 1.0'
1995
- Boing Boing launches as Web site
1996 - JenniCam goes live
1998 - Hamster Dance launches
1999 - WebVan launches, just before epically failing
2000 - Dotcom bubble bursts

Honourable mentions from 'Web 2.0'
2001
- b2, which became WordPress, is created
2004 - Flickr launches
2006 - Twitter launches
2006 - Facebook abandons college-only approach, allows anyone to join

Honourable mentions from 'Law and Order'
1994
- Vladimir Levin $10.7m bank hack
2002 - Gary McKinnon arrested
2003 - RIAA mistakenly sues grandma for sharing gangsta rap
2007 - Jammie Thomas fined $220,000 for sharing 24 songs on the Net
2007 - Apple gets ThinkSecret shut down
2007 - AllOfMP3.com is clobbered

Honourable mentions from 'Most Epic Fails'
2006 
- Google accidentally deletes own official blog
2006 - Capcom gang bang URL controversy
2007 - iTunes accidentally leaks Stargate Atlantis

Here's to the next decade!

 

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