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Major milestones from internet history

  • Founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation

    The experiences we have with invasive technology and loss of privacy seem unique to the modern internet, but the activist legal aid group Electronic Frontier Foundation was founded in 1990 out of concern for the same things. The EFF continues to push back against intrusions on user privacy; they’re celebrating their 30th anniversary this year.

    [Pictured: Portrait of John Perry Barlow, oneof the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.]

  • First public internet access

    Like Facebook did more than a decade later, internet access rolled out first to universities and later to the public. In 1991, the first totally public consumer internet service emerged with early services like Prodigy or CompuServe that adapted services they previously offered to universities and government. The AMC series “Halt and Catch Fire” is set among these (fictionalized) early networks.

  • Invention of the Mosaic web browser

    In 1993, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, or NCSA, released the first mainstream graphical web browser. This marked a change from web applications that used only text, which were harder to distinguish from technologies like bulletin board systems.

  • The first compressed audio MP3 file

    In 1995, Karlheinz Brandenburg invented a new version of an MPEG audio file that he decided to call MP3. This format collapsed huge audio files to a 10th or even less of their original size, making them easier to send across the internet of the mid ‘90s.

  • Java and Internet Explorer

    In 1995, internet veterans Sun Microsystems released the very first version of Java, a programming language and platform that allowed the internet to host platform-neutral interactive features and multimedia. Microsoft released Internet Explorer the same year, creating a one-two punch of powerful home internet capability.

  • Founding of the Internet Archive

    Programmer and engineer Brewster Kahle launched the influential Internet Archive in 1996. The nonprofit archive’s mission is to capture and store web pages so they aren’t lost to the ether. It also hosts defunct (and playable) computer games, public domain and creative commons film and music, and much more—all for the public good.

    [Pictured: Brewster Kahle at the Internet Archive, Jan. 19, 2012.]

  • Google revolutionizes internet search

    In 2020, Google dominates the public imagination to an extent that it’s hard for many people to imagine daily life without Google. Before the company’s founding in 1998, web search and navigation was quite different. Google’s first iterations were clean, sleek, and only focused on search instead of as an added function to popular landing portals like Yahoo.

    [Pictured: Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.]

  • Napster popularizes file sharing

    The cofounders of Napster, Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker, put their platform online in 1999 as a way for users to connect with each other directly in order to share files. By avoiding the interim step of hosting files on a server, they both reduced the total transit time and forecasted the “cloud” internet we rely on so much today. They also got into massive, groundbreaking legal trouble.

  • The first RSS feeds

    Activist and technology advocate Aaron Swartz helped invent the RSS feed in 2000, allowing users to “subscribe” to the update feeds of pages they liked and changing the way people browsed the internet. This technology continued paving the way for dynamic rather than static web pages, where content is made of pieces that slide together in a templated format that’s easy to identify and update.

    [Pictured: Aaron Swartz in Cambridge, Massachussetts, Aug. 31, 2007.]

  • Facebook introduces modern social networks

    In 2004, Mark Zuckerberg put the very first iteration of Facebook online. There were primitive social networks before Facebook, but in hindsight these all seem like necessary steps that would not survive the Facebook age. Indeed, Facebook relied on most of the previous “milestones” in this list in order to become a behemoth of modern life.

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