“The Internet can and will change your life.”
Readers who saw those words in a 1997 Post article might have easily dismissed them as journalistic hype. The Internet was still quite young and unexplored in those days. It gave little indication it would grow into the force that would reshape America’s economy, politics, society, education, and arts.
It had been developing slowly and quietly. While the first tests of the Internet took place in November 1969, as late as 1993, there were only 50 websites in operation. The first secure online purchase wasn’t made until August 1994 (when a Web developer bought a copy of Sting’s CD Ten Summoner’s Tales.)
Web traffic was climbing steadily, though, and the number of Internet users doubled every year. By 1997, over 70 million people around the world were online. But this was still less than 2 percent of the planet’s population. Large sections of Americans were only vaguely aware of this thing called the World Wide Web. The Post article, “Trekking the Internet,” probably introduced many readers to such terms as “HTML” and “browser” and “URL” (“pronounced ‘You Are Ell,’” the authors helpfully added).
We’re now so accustomed to the Internet that it’s amusing to read the authors’ comments on basic operations. “You can ‘save your place’ on the Web and create a list of your own favorite sites. The list of personal favorites is usually referred to in the software as the … Bookmarks section.”
Though some of the players they describe have passed from prominence — America Online’s WebCrawler and CompuServe’s NetLauncher — the Internet is still much as they described it then: “fascinating, stimulating, and thought-provoking … also silly, irreverent, and mundane.”
The biggest difference between then and now, though, is the Internet’s attitude toward commercialization. The article reported that Internet users and service providers would tolerate no advertising on the Web. When two attorneys sent a spammed advertisement to thousands of newsgroups in 1994, the Internet “responded swiftly and with considerable ferocity. All messages originating from [the lawyers] were intercepted and destroyed. Their fax machine was swamped by a flood of dummy calls, effectively disabling their machine. Their service provider was also deluged and cut off [the lawyers’] service. … They went to another service provider who offered them the same discourtesy.”
Perhaps it was naive to think the Web could remain commercial-free. Back in the 1920s, many Americans had expected radio would remain free of advertising, and America’s airwaves unsullied by singing jingles for scouring powder and deodorant. But radio went commercial, as did the Internet.
Unlike radio, however, the Internet allows users to intercept and block the advertising sent at them. Ad blockers are becoming so efficient that advertisers are starting to worry.
It’s likely that ad blocking will change the amount and type of advertising we see on the Web. But then, change is perhaps the only constant in the digital world.
The U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) last year admitted to operating a massive data-collection program, PRISM, after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the existence of the top-secret effort. PRISM, launched in 2007, enables the NSA to collect stored online communications, including chat sessions, emails, file transfers, and search histories, from Internet giants such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.
PRISM’s main purpose is to collect foreign intelligence information on suspected terrorists. The program targets Internet users, including American citizens, who reside outside the U.S. and may be communicating with bad guys abroad. The NSA claims the controversial spying program has been successful at preventing acts of terrorism.
Now, you may be thinking, “Hey, I’m no terrorist. Why should I care if the NSA snoops around a bit to catch bad guys?” Well, as you know, history has taught us that authorities don’t always have our best interests at heart, and power has a nasty habit of corrupting the very people we’ve entrusted to protect us. It’s no wonder privacy advocates are up in arms, demanding an end to PRISM and other surveillance programs like it.
“People have a right to exist unobserved, to be left alone,” says Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that advocates stronger legal standards to limit government surveillance. “But it’s getting tougher and tougher for everyday people to take steps to exist unobserved online,” Brookman adds. “Practically speaking, it’s really hard to turn off all the spigots of information about yourself. It’s unmanageable today. There aren’t easy ways to exist unobserved.”
That’s certainly true, but with a little effort you can enhance your privacy and make it harder for government, commercial, and even criminal entities to monitor your online activities.
To read the rest of the article, pick up a copy of the Jan/Feb 2014 issue of The Saturday Evening Post on newsstands, or