Control, Change and the Internet

Patrick Maslen (

Chapter 3: The (almost) All-American Network

"For half a century, along with television, space flight, nuclear weapons and automobiles, computers have formed a technological backdrop for the American mental landscape."

- Paul N. Edwards, Cyberpunks in Cyberspace: the Politics of Subjectivity in the Computer Age

In the wake of domestic backbone politics and international protocol wars, the Internet began to define itself as an independent entity. Nevertheless, Internet culture is American in origin, inheriting democratic ideals and most of its participants from its parent. In spite of this, the Internet and Internet culture could not be explained by models of the political and economic history of the modern United States. This was because these models did not take into account the international aspects of the Internet Protocol.

Although it had international influences from the beginning, the Internet was profoundly American. It was influenced not only by democratic principles, but also by the government and corporate, military and scientific cultures - the military-industrial complex - which had been part of American society since the Second World War. The United States government played an important, perhaps the most important role in the development of the Internet. It provided funding first through DARPA and ARPANET, then in 1986 establishing the NSFNet (National Science Foundation Net) backbone across the country, allowing 'an explosion of connections.'[1] NSFNet helped the Internet population to reach 'critical mass' (it rose from 1000 hosts in 1983 to 100,000 in 1989, a phenomenal rate of growth) and shrug off the effects of the Backbone Cabal and protocol wars. The American State was very important in the nurture of the Internet.

The designers of the Internet had no idea of how their creation would be used. Vinton Cerf wrote: 'I had certain technical ambitions when this project started, but they were all oriented toward...military application...I didn't have a clue that we would end up with anything like the scale of what we have now.'[2] Cerf's TCP/IP protocols were designed for a specific military purpose, and not at all because the protocols enabled 'democratic' (or even 'American') computer networks. Technology, however, is never socially, politically or economically neutral[3]; much less the Internet Protocol with its weight of political and military history. Even if Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn were not aware of this non-technical baggage in their design, as the Internet grew beyond its original ARPANET nodes throughout the 1980s, these unintended features of the Internet played an important part in the development of online communities. The Internet became an accidental democracy.

By 1988, after the 'breaking of the Backbone Cabal'[4], USENET was not controlled by any group. However, with 33,000 host computers and a large (but uncertain) user population[5], net society had developed its own cultural and historical inertia; it was not going to be slowed down by lack of control. In order to cope with USENET's rapid growth, People developed unwritten[6] codes of online behaviour called 'netiquette' (for 'net-etiquette.) Netiquette was Internet Protocol for humans. The Internet's unregulated, peer-to-peer nature encouraged freedom of speech - another cherished American ideal. The Internet Protocol had no hierarchy, so neither did the people who used it. Just as all computers on the network were treated as peers, so were the users of the computers.

The Internet dissolved hierarchies. It was a text-based medium, devoid of visual and audible social cues. Gender, ethnicity, appearance, dialect were virtually impossible to detect on USENET, so social hierarchies in the external world did not affect netizens. Once the direct potential power of the backbones to control it had faded, the Internet community - USENET, BITNET, ARPANET and a host of other linked networks stretching across North America and across the Atlantic to Europe - was essentially an anarchic democracy, regulated only by internal laws of netiquette and its members' sense that it was, in fact, a community.

Most of the thirty-thousand Internet-connected computers in 1988 (and most 'netizens') were located in the United States, with many in Western Europe (the protocol wars were winding down) and a scattering of nodes in other countries, including Canada (Australia's AARNET backbone was connected in 1989.) As well as being American, most netizens were computer-literate and university educated, if not actually attending university. The large American weighting in the Internet population meant that the majority Internet culture was democratic, capitalistic, English-speaking, shaped by American values. But not entirely.

In an idealised American-style democracy, anyone is allowed to voice an opinion, and this was also true of the Internet. The newsgroup structure of USENET made it easy for people to express their opinions, and for their opinions to be heard. The nature of the Internet medium and the fact that it could no longer be regulated above the level of the individual node or subnetwork made the net into a broadcast medium which was much less restricted than traditional American (or European) media such as print, radio and television.

Access to these traditional broadcast media was (and is) restricted to relatively small, closed groups. The telegraph system in the United States was dominated by Western Union Telegraphy Corporation as early as 1856. Telephony infrastructure was controlled by AT&T until the mid-eighties. Print, radio and television in the United States, at least those with national distribution, were controlled by small groups of companies.[7] As communications theorist Herbert I. Schiller noted, within these groups are 'selectors and controllers' who 'shift and shape'[8] the messages which pass through their broadcast points. A broadcast point could be a television transmission station or a printing press.

Schiller's theory applied generally to all mass media, including, presumably, the Internet. However the difference between the Internet and the older media is that, thanks to the Internet Protocol, every node in the system is potentially a broadcast point, as well as a receiver. Information travels to and from each node, so there are a great many more 'selectors and controllers' in the system; in fact, every single node. Unlike traditional broadcast media, control of the physical infrastructure of the Internet is widely distributed. The large number of 'selectors' has the effect of reducing the power of any one node or group of nodes to affect the entire system.

Every node in the Internet is on an equal footing; no messages take precedence. On the Internet, powerful organisations such as governments and corporations, which traditionally have dominated other mass media, found themselves at the same level as perhaps less well-funded individuals and minority groups without much 'real world' influence. In one way, the Internet decreased the power of these large-scale organisations because their voices were no longer the only or even the loudest ones to be heard in the medium. However the fact that large-scale organisations did not dominate the Internet medium did not decrease their real-world influence. Instead, the Internet increased the influence of minority groups online.

American minority groups, including 'agrarian radicals, fundamentalists and militant minorities' had long been ignored or ridiculed in the study of contemporary American history[9], and by the media. However, minority groups including non- Americans could share their views and potentially influence Internet society without being drowned out by large-scale organisations or the American university majority. The American connection to Internet society worked both ways; any group which could influence the Internet could also have an effect on American society, as long as its views were expressed in English. The Internet had a democratising effect.

With its egalitarian society, the Internet was in some ways 'fairer' and more democratic than its parent, the United States. When Roy F. Nichols described 'a self- government in which all are technically involved and in which this interest is demonstrably central to the self-identification of the people'[10], he was talking about the United States, but he could just as easily have been referring to the Internet. There were a few problems with this kind of 'democracy', however.

First, the term 'democracy' is misleading, because there is no actual government of the Internet, by the people or otherwise. The Internet protocols quietly enforce the peer-to-peer network, but 'the people', or netizens do not make collective decisions about the Internet itself. Second, access to the network in the 1980s was generally limited to a small (but rapidly growing), educated section of American and international societies. All netizens are literate; they did not proportionally represent their real-world societies. As a result of this, there was probably less disruption of the 'harmonious community' tradition of ARPANET than there might otherwise have been[11] as the net grew and grew.

Consensus history and the organisational synthesis were two broad theories constructed to encompass contemporary American history. The two models are not incompatible, although they focus on different aspects of 20th century American society. Both models are relevant to the history of the Internet. Neither is adequate to explain it fully.

Consensus historians of the 1950s argued that although diverse and complex, American society was characterised by a 'pervasive agreement' with the 'values and institutions of democratic capitalism.'[12] The Internet Protocol was American in origin, and did encourage a democratic (albeit quirky) USENET culture. TCP/IP evolved from the ARPANET community. ARPANET's democratic and anarchic tendencies[13] came from its history as a small, trusting network of people. M.A. Padlipsky, one of the original Network Working Group members of ARPANET, cites a 'Principle of Equity' as a 'tacit design principle' of ARPANET, and later the Internet.[14]

It is possible to use the consensus model to 'explain' the Internet as a force for the spread of idealised American democracy, but to do so would be misleading, since the model can only be applied to the Internet with hindsight. Cerf, Kahn and the other designers of TCP/IP never anticipated the extent of the Internet's growth. They certainly neither planned nor promoted the Internet as a large-scale vehicle for democracy; neither did its users. Even Padlipsky's "Principle of Equity" only considered democratic exchange between the two-hundred or so nodes of ARPANET, not the ten million worldwide Internet hosts extant in 1996. The consensus model is inadequate to explain the growth of the Internet.

The organisational synthesis, concurrent in time with the rise of the Internet, emphasised the importance of technology and the economic, social and political effects of the growth of large-scale organisations[15], especially bureaucracies and corporations. The organisational synthesis is a model for the modern age. At first glance, it would seem to be very useful in explaining aspects of the Internet's history, and indeed it is. The Internet was certainly a large-scale, expanding, technical system, 'dynamic, self- generating and self-sustaining.'[16] The Internet protocol (or at least its designers) had a specific goal - "IP on everything."[17] All of these characteristics were typical of the historical technical system, according to organisation theory.

However, the model does not account for the empowerment of individuals; organisational theory describes a world 'increasingly impervious to their influence.'[18] That is not the case on the Internet, where neither large organisations nor individuals dominate. A central feature of the organisational synthesis is the development of centralised 'elaborate managerial hierarchies'[19] to control large-scale organisations. But such hierarchies (like the USENET Backbone Cabal) cannot control the Internet, and are in fact undermined by it. Although the effect of technology on large-scale organisations is an important part of the organisational synthesis, the theory cannot explain the effect of the Internet Protocol without substantial revision. The Internet was a new factor in organisational history.

Although the Internet could be made to 'fit' both historiographical models of modern American history, the fit was not perfect in either. Each model has its flaws. Both models ignore the important effects which the world outside the United States had on the Internet. The models deal with the modern United States, but they do not acknowledge (especially the consensus model) the increasing interdependence which exists between countries in the modern world, an interdependence which was both exemplified and proliferated by the Internet.

Whether co-operative or competitive, the Internet has always been affected by international influences and the 'grand politics of globalist American foreign policy.'[20] International diplomacy implies international competition and the use of military power. The Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Internet's sponsor, was formed after the launch of the USSR's Sputnik satellite[21], to accelerate the United States' military science and technology. The Cuban missile crisis in 1962 came close to precipitating a nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union; it may be no coincidence that in the same year the RAND corporation came up with the idea for a holocaust-survivable communication system. The protocol wars of the 1980s kept European and American networking interests at arm's length, but there was always enough international interest (and participation) in the Internet to keep it from becoming a completely American entity. International politics helped to shape the Internet. But it was still an American invention.

The international side of the Internet was as much a part of its history as its American influence. American-centred historical models, although useful, did not incorporate the concept of the growing interdependence of the world; I could not analyse the Internet effectively through them. From 1983 until the end of the decade, the Internet grew and evolved, increasing its numbers dramatically with aid of the government-funded NSFNet. Immune to restricted broadcasting, in spite of competing protocols, individuals and groups on the net developed a working anarchy based on free speech and netiquette, linked and yet separate from the United States.


  1. Zakon, Hobbes' Internet Timeline v.2.4a, [], 22 February 1996.
  2. Cerf, 'How the Internet Came to Be' in Aboba, The Online User's Encyclopedia, 1993, p. 533.
  3. Louis Galambos, 'Technology, Political Economy and Professionalization: Central Themes of the Organizational Synthesis', in Business History Review , vol. 57, no. 4, (Winter, 1983), p. 476.
  4. Hardy, 'The History of the Net', [], 1993.
  5. Zakon, Hobbes' Internet Timeline v.2.4a, [], 22 February 1996.
  6. Netiquette 'rules' were later codified by none other than Gene Spafford, the original organiser of the Backbone Cabal.
  7. See Dennis W. Mazzocco, Networks of Power: Corporate T.V. s Threat to Democracy, 1994.
  8. Herbert I. Schiller, 'Who Knows: Information in the Age of Fortune 500' (1981), quoted in Hamid Mowlana, Global Information and World Communication: New Frontiers in International Relations, 1986, pp. 104-5.
  9. Alan Brinkley, 'Writing the History of Contemporary America', in Daedalus 113 (Summer 1984), p. 134.
  10. Roy F. Nichols, presidential address to American Historical Association, 1966, quoted in William E. Leuchtenburg, 'The Pertinence of Political History: Reflections on the Significance of the State in America', Journal of American History vol. 73, no. 3, p. 589.
  11. Salus, Casting the Net, p. 53, 205.
  12. Brinkley, 'Writing the History of Contemporary America: Dilemmas and Challenges', in Daedalus 113 (Summer 1984), p. 130.
  13. Hafner and Lyon, Where Wizards Stay Up Late, 1996, p. 190.
  14. Padlipsky, M., 'A Perspective on the ARPANET Reference Model', RFC 0871, [NIS.NSF.NET/internet/documents/rfc0871.txt], 1 September, 1982, p. 11. Padlipsky maligns the ISO for not including this 'Principle of Equity' in OSI.
  15. Galambos, 'Technology, Political Economy and Professionalization', in Business History Review, vol. 57, no. 4, (Winter, 1983), p. 471.
  16. Samuel P. Hays, 'The New Organizational Society', in American Political History as Social Analysis: Essays by Samuel P. Hays, 1980, p.247-9.
  17. Cerf, 'How the Internet Came to Be' in Aboba, The Online User's Encyclopedia, 1993, p.533.
  18. Brinkley, 'Writing the History of Contemporary America', p. 134.
  19. Galambos, 'Technology, Political Economy and Professionalization', in Business History Review, vol. 57, no. 4, (Winter, 1983), p. 492
  20. Paul N. Edwards, 'Cyberpunks in Cyberspace: the Politics of Subjectivity in the Computer Age' in Susan Leigh Star (ed.) The Cultures of Computing, 1995, p. 72.
  21. Zakon, Hobbes' Internet Timeline v.2.4a, [], 22 February 1996.

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