The internet revolution

Heiko Khoo looks at the history of the internet and the relevance of issues like open source programming for socialists.

The United Nations Human Development Report 1999 estimates that there are now 150 million internet users and that by 2001 there will be 700 million. The internet has expanded faster than any other communications medium in history. The way in which computers and the internet are developed will determine how we live in the next century. The marvels created by the combination of computing and the internet enable us to link and communicate as never before.

The capitalists were extremely slow to adapt to the new technology, even though it would create massive new markets and make their operations more efficient. In the mid 1990s they did an about turn and threw hundreds of billions of dollars into various electronic commerce ventures. However, most of them are kings with no clothes. The sale of stocks was all the capitalists cared about and ridiculous money was poured into hopeless lossmakers like the British internet company "Freeserve", which cannot and will not ever make money. Freeserve was recently valued at £1.5 billion or £1500 for every user, so how they are supposed to make this money remains a mystery.

In 1957 the Advanced Research Projects Agency ARPA was formed by the US Department of Defence to develop technology for military usage to combat the threat posed by the Soviet UnionÕs satellite launch, Sputnik. The problem of how to keep in regular contact led to the creation of ARPANET, which linked the computer systems together in a way that sent data in multiple tiny packets (packet switching). This allowed data to reach its destination via diverse routes, which would find their way to their destination even if a nuclear bomb destroyed parts of the network.

Communications

The Internet-working Working Group (INWG) was formed in 1972 introducing standardised protocols, which had to be the core of such data transfers. From 1973 the internet became international developing gradually until 1991, when the world wide web was publicly released. Since that time the internet has expanded faster than any other communications medium.

Although the internet started as a military project, the core of the internet has been maintained and developed by various co-operative organisations where the work of the collaborators is voluntary. This is a fact barely mentioned in the mass media. The most influential group is the internet society (ISOC) formed in 1992. The motivation for their collective work is purely to assist the development of the internet.

Microsoft only jumped onto the back of the internet years after the web became available, by making a pirate version of the Netscape Internet browser through reverse engineering of their software, and through monopolistic practices.

Ironically Microsoft gained its market domination by effectively stealing the programme MS DOS from its creator Gary Tilder who refused to sell it to IBM. Bill Gates found a computer company that had made a copy, modified it slightly and bought the rights to it for only $50,000. This is what eventually made Gates the owner of more personal wealth than 115 million fellow Americans. Now Microsoft extends its domination by buying up competitor programmes and subordinating them to their "intellectual property rights".

High-speed

The internet has challenged all this though. Through being able to transfer data from remote computers onto your own, distribution costs have effectively disappeared. Eventually when high-speed communications systems are introduced, no one will buy a CD-ROM and every programme will be downloaded from the internet. Microsoft's method of distribution by CD-ROM is like selling TV programmes on video tapes. But to make the internet the means of distribution for large computer programmes, video and three-dimensional moving imagery, requires high-speed communications systems to the home.

The entire global telecommunications system is being held back by narrow profit motivation.

In early September it was announced that technology that could provide high speed internet access through the electricity supply had been shelved. British Telecom have sat on fast speed access "ADSL" technology for over two years because it makes such huge profits out of the outdated phone system and the ISDN system. To this day they are touting ISDN to business and home users as a communications "revolution".

The reason for their sloth-like behaviour is that ADSL will eventually replace the phone system and that may eat into BT's vast profits.

Finally after years of delay BT have announced they will introduce ADSL from next March and Cable companies will introduce similar speed Cable modems in Spring 2000. The Labour government should immediately renationalise BT, provide free access to the internet from every home and inject massive financial support into Linux programming and internet content providers. This would break the stranglehold that the multinationals hold over mass communications.

Linux

In computer programming, the real challenger is co-operative work such as we are seeing with the Linux computer system. The concept behind Linux is that information belongs to the public domain under General Public License, this is the exact opposite of capitalist "Intellectual Property Rights", which hold that ideas are personal property and the owner has a right to payment for every copy of their programme.

Linux is an operating system that works by providing the "source codes" for all programmes that run on it, so there are no secrets, errors can be corrected immediately and development has no limits, unlike private copyrighted source codes of commercial companies. Linux can be made to run any computer operation you can imagine, and an infinite variety you cannot yet think of - and it is free.

According to the UN Human Development Report, the Linux "Apache" programme now runs over 50% of all web servers world-wide, and the Financial Times reports 70% of e-mail is sent on Linux's "Send Mail" programme. In other words the internet is being run by co-operative endeavour.

The largest 200 multinationals dominate the world economy, but when they are publicly owned, all their operations knowledge will be available through the internet. This will enable the consumers and producers to democratically plan human development for peace, freedom and plenty.