The Internet, sometimes called simply “the Net,” is a worldwide system of computer networks — a network of networks in which users at any one computer can, if they have permission, get information from any other computer (and sometimes talk directly to users at other computers). It was conceived by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) of the U.S. government in 1969 and was first known as the ARPANet. The original aim was to create a network that would allow users of a research computer at one university to “talk to” research computers at other universities. A side benefit of ARPANet’s design was that, because messages could be routed or rerouted in more than one direction, the network could continue to function even if parts of it were destroyed in the event of a military attack or other disaster.
Today, the Internet is a public, cooperative and self-sustaining facility accessible to hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
How the Internet works
Physically, the Internet uses a portion of the total resources of the currently existing public telecommunication networks. Technically, what distinguishes the Internet is its use of a set of protocols called Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). Two recent adaptations of Internet technology, the intranet and the extranet, also make use of the TCP/IP protocol.
The Internet can be seen as having two major components: network protocols and hardware. The protocols, such as the TCP/IP suite, present sets of rules that devices must follow in order to complete tasks. Without this common collection of rules, machines would not be able to communicate.
The protocols are also responsible for translating the alphabetic text of a message into electronic signals that can be transmitted over the Internet, and then back again into legible, alphabetic text.
Hardware, the second major component of the Internet, includes everything from the computer or smartphone that is used to access the Internet to the cables that carry information from one device to another. Additional types of hardware include satellites, radios, cell phone towers, routers and servers.
These various types of hardware are the connections within the network. Devices such as computers, smartphones and laptops are end points, or clients, while the machines that store the information are the servers. The transmission lines that exchange the data can either be wireless signals from satellites or 4G and cell phone towers, or physical lines, such as cables and fiber optics.
The process of transferring information from once device to another relies on packet switching. Each computer connected to the Internet is assigned a unique IP address that allows the device to be recognized. When one device attempts to send a message to another device, the data is sent over the Internet in the form of manageable packets. Each packet is assigned a port number that will connect it to its endpoint.
A packet that has both a unique IP address and port number can be translated from alphabetic text into electronic signals by travelling through the layers of the OSI model from the top application layer to the bottom physical layer. The message will then be sent over the Internet where it is received by the Internet service provider’s (ISP) router. The router will examine the destination address assigned to each packet and determine where to send it.
Eventually, the packet reaches the client and travels in reverse from the bottom physical layer of the OSI model to the top application layer. During this process, the routing data — the port number and IP address — is stripped from the packet, thus allowing the data to be translated back into alphabetic text and completing the transmission process.
A brief explanation of how the Internet works:
Uses of the Internet
In general, the Internet can be used to communicate across large or small distances, share information from any place in the world and access information or answers to almost any question in moments.
Some specific examples of how the Internet is used include:
- E-mail and other forms of communication, such Internet Relay Chat (IRC), Internet telephony, instant messaging, video conferencing and social media;
- education and self-improvement through access to online degree programs, courses and workshops and
- searching for jobs — both the employer and applicant use the Internet to post open positions, apply for jobs and recruit individuals found on social networking sites like LinkedIn.
Other examples include:
Difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet
The key difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW or the Web) is that the Internet is a global connection of networks while the Web is a collection of information that can be accessed using the Internet. In other words, the Internet is the infrastructure and the Web is a service on top.
The Web is the most widely used part of the Internet. Its outstanding feature is hypertext, a method of instant cross-referencing. In most Web sites, certain words or phrases appear in text of a different color than the rest; often this text is also underlined. When a user selects one of these words or phrases, they will be transferred to the related site or page. Buttons, images, or portions of images are also used as hyperlinks.
The Web provides access to billions of pages of information. Web browsing is done through a Web browser, the most popular of which are Google Chrome, Firefox and Internet Explorer. The appearance of a particular Web site may vary slightly depending on the browser used. Later or more updated versions of a particular browser are able to render more complex features, such as animation, virtual reality, sound and music files.
Security and the Internet
Large amounts of information, both public and private, is collected across the Internet, opening users up to the risk of data breaches and other security threats. Hackers and crackers can break into networks and systems and steal information such as login information or bank and credit card account records. Some steps that can be taken to protect online privacy include:
- Installing antivirus and antimalware
- Creating difficult, varied passwords that are impossible to guess.
- Using a virtual private network (VPN) or, at least, a private browsing mode, such as Google Chrome’s Incognito window.
- Only using HTTPS
- Making all social media accounts private.
- Deactivating autofill.
- Turning off the device’s GPS.
- Updating cookies so an alert is sent anytime a cookie is installed.
- Logging out of accounts instead of just closing the tab or window.
- Using caution with spam emails and never opening or downloading content from unknown sources.
- Using caution when accessing public Wi-Fi or hotspots.
Additionally, there is an element of the Internet called the dark web. The dark web is hidden and inaccessible through standard browsers. Instead, it uses the Tor and I2P browsers which allow users to remain entirely anonymous. While this anonymity can be a great way to protect an online user’s security and free speech or for the government to keep classified data hidden, the dark web also creates an environment that facilitates cybercrime, the transfer of illegal goods and terrorism.
Social impact of the Internet
The social impact of the Internet can be seen as both positive and negative. On one side, people argue that the Internet has increased the risk of isolation, alienation and withdrawal from society, pointing to increases in an emotional response called FOMO, or the fear of missing out. On the other side, people believe the Internet to have had the opposite effect on society, arguing that the Internet increases civic engagement, sociability and the intensity of relationships.
Whether the impacts are good or bad, the Internet has changed the way society interacts and connects. One example of change is the increased focus on personal growth and a decline in a community that is determined by work, family and space. People are now constructing social relationships based on individual interests, projects and values. Communities are being formed by like-minded individuals not only offline and in person, but through the Internet and the multitude of online environments which it creates and offers. Social networking sites — like Facebook and LinkedIn — have become the preferred platforms for both businesses and individuals looking to perform all kinds of tasks and communicate with others.
Benefits of the Internet
Benefits of the Internet include:
- Access to endless information, knowledge and education.
- An increased ability to communicate, connect and share.
- The ability to work from home, collaborate and access a global workforce.
- The chance to sell and make money as a business or individual.
- Access to an unlimited supply of entertainment sources, such as movies, music, videos and games.
- The ability to amplify the impact of a message, allowing charities and other organizations to reach a wider audience and increase the total amount of donations.
- Access to the internet of things (IoT), which allows home appliances and devices to connect and be controlled from a computer or smartphone.
- The ability to save data and easily share files with cloud storage.
- The ability to monitor and control personal accounts instantly, such as bank accounts or credit card bills.
History of the Internet
The ARPANet, the predecessor of the Internet, was first deployed in 1969. In 1983, the ARPANet transitioned into using the TCP/IP open networking protocol suite and in 1985, the National Science Foundation Network (NSFN) designed the network to connect university computer science departments around the country.
Communications over the Internet greatly improved in 1989 when the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) was created, giving different computer platforms the ability to connect to the same Internet sites. In 1993, the Mosaic Web browser was created.
The Internet has continued to grow and evolve over the years of its existence. IPv6, for example, was designed to anticipate enormous future expansion in the number of available IP addresses. In a related development, the IoT is the burgeoning environment in which almost any entity or object can be provided with a unique identified (UID) and the ability to transfer data automatically over the Internet.