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Sunday, 23 June 2019 16:35

First packets transmitted on Internet Down Under 30 years ago Featured

First packets transmitted on Internet Down Under 30 years ago Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay

Sunday marks 30 years since the first packets were transmitted on the Internet in Australia. The network came to Australia because of a recognition by the Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee, now Universities Australia, that the country was suffering a serious brain drain as many researchers were leaving the country.

Peter Elford, director of Government Relations at Australia's Academic and Research Network, and the second employee of the academic network, detailed some of the initial history to Angus Griffin, director, customer relations at AARNet, recently.

Elford said it was a genuine brain drain because many facilities in Australia were not up to world standards. "In particular, there was this new thing called the Internet in America which was centred around what was then called the National Science Foundation network or the NSF.net and it was clear that it was changing the way people did science, the way they accessed big resources like supercomputers, Elford said.

The Commission asked an academic, Professor Brian Carr, an Englishman based at the University of Queensland, to look into the problem and and suggest a course of action. This investigation happened mostly through 1988.

"And the important thing of the Carr report is, it said yes, Australia needs to do something to remain connected to the rest of the world. And so that was the good news. The bad news it recommended a technology that was pretty rubbish," Elford said, referring to a protocol known as X.25.

internet pioneers

In the early days... Geoff Huston and Peter Elford, employees one and two at AARNet. Courtesy AARNet 

Intervention by Geoff Huston, now the chief scientist at APNIC, who ran the first network shop in Sydney, ended with routers being used.

Elford said AARNet had a pretty simple delegation of duties at the time: "it was, is Jeff doing it, no, well then I guess I must be doing it, right, so and a lot of things were like that. He (Huston) was terrific to work for and he really was the intellectual brains from a technical point of view."

The political side of things was driven by the AVCC. "The Australian Vice Chancellors' Committee funded the University of Melbourne to get a link in, which they did in on the night of June 23-24," Elford recalled, adding that between the three brands of networking equipment available, they chose Cisco, at that time a start-up.

There was no security of any kind on the network that was set up at the time. It grew pretty rapidly and over the next three years something like 40,000 computers were attached to it.

Elford recalled using HyperCard, a now forgotten program which was available for the Apple Macintosh, to write scripts to generate the configurations which they then copies and pasted it into the routers.

"We put them in boxes and we shipped them out to all the university sites and said one of Jeff or I will come and visit you and connect the router. Jeff went to Queensland and Western Australia and South Australia, all the places that had sunshine," Elford said, adding that he went to all the colder places like Tasmania, NSW and Victoria.

Asked to take a look into the future, Elford told iTWire that the Internet - at the network layer - was an open platform for innovation – that’s why it had been so successful.

"So I don’t think there is any doubt that in the future more things will be interconnected, more sources of data will be assimilated, and an impossible-to-imagine number of new applications and services will be developed," he added.

"The earliest applications that were used on the Internet now seem incredibly crude with little on no integration. We now expect slick interfaces, joined up applications and data. And in the future these networked experiences will become increasingly sophisticated with the underlying technology becoming less and less visible (possibly a good thing!)."

Asked about the possibility of balkanisation of the network, given the current political situation, Elford said the Internet had enabled change in all aspects of the lives of humans and communities much faster than people had been able to develop the “cultural norms" that were typically the basis for the laws that are passed to regulate society.

"As a result, the power and control of the 'over the top' global service providers, particularly those active in the search, digital advertising and social media sectors, is far greater than what we would have allowed in any other market, particularly regarding the collection and use of personal data," he said.

"Establishing and reclaiming the digital rights of citizens from these providers is a far greater challenge than (say) balkanisation of connectivity."

In response to a query about the security of the Internet, Elford said a great deal of the terrifying state of security was underpinned by failings in the awareness, behaviours and expectations of "us" – the citizens/the users.

"For example, the digital, or Internet, version of 'stranger danger' is very poorly developed, and the importance and value of a digital identity is largely unknown. The willingness of providers to allow, and for users to accept weak or non-existent identities to be established, and for services to be used anonymously, only exacerbates this situation.

"The clumsy and 'knee jerk' interventions by governments to create a regulatory framework around all this really are treating the disease not the symptoms."

AARNet has compiled a history of the Internet in Australia here.

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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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