We celebrate 40 years of the Internet

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As the Internet marks its 40th anniversary, French research institute Inria revisits its birth and evolution with Grard Le Lann, a pioneer in the field and emeritus director of research at Inria.

Born out of ARPANET, a US military research project in 1958, the Internet has come a long way since its inception, Le Lann explains. Key events include the development of packet switched networks, the creation of the ARPANET project, the invention of the TCP/IP protocols, and the eventual separation of the ARPANET into MilNet and the Internet in 1983. Today, the Internet faces security challenges information technology, privacy, AI and digital sovereignty. With 25 percent of undersea cables — accounting for 90 percent of transcontinental Internet traffic — owned by tech giants, ensuring information security and privacy remains a top priority.

The Cold War and the birth of the ARPANET

The history of the origins of the Internet dates back to 1957, when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite. This event sent shockwaves through the United States, prompting concerns about the USSR’s technological advances and potential nuclear threats. In response, the US government established the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958 to promote research for military applications.

One of ARPA’s earliest projects aimed to develop an interconnected network of computers, inspired by the work of Joseph Licklider. The Rand Corporation, a research and development center, recruited engineer Paul Baran to further explore this concept. Between 1960 and 1964, Baran worked on breaking down messages into packets and reassembling them upon arrival, laying the foundations for packet-switched networks.

Creation of a national network

In 1967, Larry Roberts, program director at ARPA, launched the ARPANET project with the ambitious goal of creating a packet-switched network covering the entire United States. This network was aimed at enabling communication between computers on opposite sides of the country. However, implementing this idea required tackling a new problem: creating an end-to-end protocol that controlled the transmissions of data packets for both sending and receiving computers connected to the network.

Grard Le Lann, who joined Iria (a predecessor of Inria) in 1972, began exploring this topic by setting up a “Networks” team in Rennes, France. He closely monitored the work of such North American pioneers as Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Alex McKenzie and Steve Crocker.

Setting the stage for Silicon Valley

Le Lann’s research led to the development of the “sliding window” mechanism, which controls errors and flows during message exchanges. In March 1973 he presented his findings to Vint Cerf, who invited him to join his research group at Stanford University for a year. During this time, Le Lann and his colleagues realized the potential of their communications system to be more than just a means for researchers to exchange messages, signaling the dawn of Silicon Valley.

Together, these pioneers developed the TCP and IP protocols, which are still in use today. Grard Le Lann compares these protocols to shipping: data packets are like containers, IP is responsible for transporting containers from port of departure to port of arrival, and TCP manages port resources, traffic and losses along the path.

The birth of the internet

In 1983, the US Department of Defense decided to split the ARPANET into two parts due to concerns about civilian and military computers, including those from overseas, communicating via the ARPANET. The military segment was called MilNet, while the civilian segment was called Internet. This marked the official birth of the Internet on January 1, 1983.

Since then, the Internet has spawned countless innovations, including the World Wide Web, distributed consensus algorithms, the Internet of Things, and the Interplanetary Internet. Today it is an integral part of the daily life of billions of people around the world.

Current challenges and the future of the Internet

As the internet continues to evolve, it faces numerous challenges, including cybersecurity, privacy, artificial intelligence, and digital sovereignty. With a quarter of all undersea cables, accounting for 90% of transcontinental internet traffic, owned by GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), ensuring information security and privacy is paramount.

While the pioneers of the Internet could not have foreseen all of these challenges, it is now up to today’s researchers and engineers to find solutions and shape the future of this groundbreaking invention. The Internet’s journey over the past 40 years has been extraordinary, and its story is far from over.

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