Living the Internet

by Olivier Crepin-Leblond


I first heard about the OneWebday project a few years ago and always felt too busy to contribute in any meaningful way, be it by becoming an ambassador, or by writing an actual story for the event.

Since I’ve lived the Internet (as I’d like to say) since 1988, it occurred to me that perhaps this year was the right time to write. That’s nearly 20 years of Internetting. Naturally in 20 years, the Internet has changed my life not once but many many times and in my contribution, I’ll focus on 4 main stories which might be of interest to everyone.

Each story contains a lesson. I hope you’ll find them an interesting read but most of all, I dearly hope that we’ll all remember those lessons.

1. Discovery

The story of my first week on the Internet.

VAX 11/785

VAX 11/785

I first discovered the Internet in late October 1988. I was at university (King’s College London) and was logged in one of these (now) antique computers called a VAX 11/785 running an operating system called VMS.
The first distribution list I subscribed to was the Virus-L Discussion list, a discussion about computer viruses. I had an interest in the subject ever since I had heard the story of the (C)BRAIN Virus. Although the concept of a Computer Virus had already been imagined over 40 years earlier by John von Neumann, I wondered whether such a critter could be applicable to this network of networks that I had heard so much about.

Amazingly, 3 days after I joined (2nd November 1988), the Internet crashed as a result of a worm written by Robert Tappan Morris, a 23 year old Cornell Graduate Student. In short, Morris had miscalculated the speed of the Internet. Re-infection of computers that had already been infected took place at a much higher rate than he originally imagined. Multiple reinfection meant a sudden peak in traffic and slowdown to a halt. Being located in the UK and accessing the Internet through a local academic network called JANET (Joint Academic Network), our computer systems were not really affected because TCP-IP was not running in native mode on JANET.

However, I had access to the Internet through a gateway at University College London. We got immediately cut off for a while. Then a flood of emails came in from the Virus-L Discussion List, with on the spot reactions from system managers all around the United States. It was like watching a movie, “victims” e-dying, a task force forming itself, a counter-attack being spontaneously set-up and a final defeat of the rogue code. I was also reading messages on USENET – which still used UUCP dial-up, so it was a resilient path to have information distributed.

My first week on the Internet showed me how amazing a communications medium this was, how much of a giant it was going to be, but also how fragile this giant was. It was a lot to learn in a full week. Today there are fewer resilient channels of communication than there used to be. USENET has all but faded away. TCP-IP rules everywhere. This might be its strength and its weakness. Beware of Achilles heel…

Lesson 1: the Internet is a fragile resource. Take care of it.

2. Chinese Dreams

A story about Freedom.

On 9th June 1989, I received a forwarded message in my mailbox. It was an email that had originally been sent by a Sun Microsystems employee in Beijing on May 23rd 1989, relating the situation on the ground in Tiananmen Square. The message was both reassuring and (now we know) naive, signaling that everything was fine in Beijing and the dream of democracy was finally coming true. We all know what happened on 5 June 1989.

I am including an excerpt of the original message here.

> From: GROVE::ZDEE042 “Princess Leia” 9-JUN-1989 11:57
> To: ZDEE036,ZDEE038,ZDEE041,ZDEE699,ZDEE762,ZDEE763,ZDEE764,ZDAP808,UDEE705,ZDAC128,ZDAC131,ZDAC161,ZDAC166,ZDCA717
> Subj: illusions of students in China. anybody knows what happened after!!
> From: 7-JUN-1989 21:57
> To: ZDEE042
> Subj: letters from china
> Date: Wed, 7 Jun 89 21:47:04 BST
> From:
> To:
> Subject: letters from china
> Message-ID: <>
> the header to this makes just as interesting reading as the letter! it has
> got around, quite a bit, i can tell you!
> ============================================================================

Further Headers deleted – for reasons of confidentiality.
The path taken to reach me from the other side of the world was roughly:
Beijing -> Hong Kong -> Japan -> Palo Alto -> Rest of Silicon Valley -> MIT -> Princeton -> Edinburgh -> Oxford and then London using UUCP, as well as TCP-IP and several other email protocols to go from China to my desk.

We pick it up at Hong Kong. I have replaced all addresses/names by [XXX].

> >
> > The network is a wonderful thing. This was sent “this morning” at 4 am (Beijing
> > time). Much more interesting than anything I’ve read in the Chronicle.
> >
> >
> > – XXX
> >
> > – —– Begin Included Message —–
> >
> > >From XXX@XXX Tue May 23 09:57:25 1989
> > To: XXX@XXX,
> > Subject: A Beijing status report
> > Status: RO
> >
> > [ XXX ] and [ XXX ]
> >
> > I thought I would share this personal account of what’s happening on
> > the streets of Beijing. The writer is our own [XXX] . The “XXX”
> > referred to is [ XXX ].
> >
> > I apologize to members on both lists for receiving duplicates of this.
> >
> > – [ XXX ]
> >
> > – ———————————————————————
> >
> > >From sunhk!sunbj!XXX Tue May 23 04:39:34 1989
> > From: sunhk!sunbj!XXX (XXX – Sun Beijing XXX)
> > To: sunhk!sun!sun!XXX
> > Subject: Re: hello??
> > Cc: sunhk!XXX
> >
> > Yes, I am all right. Thank you, my friend.
> >
> > The situation here seems getting better and better. All army members
> > are blocked outside Beijing city. The people’s life in the city looks
> > as normal as usual. You may not able to see any difference than
> > ordinary life on the streets or in the shops now. Although the
> > students direct the traffic instead of the police, the accidents are
> > less than before. The buses started to work yesterday. Many people
> > went to their work unit this morning.
> >
> > There are still thousands of students in Tan’anman square. They said
> > “we will not end until our aims are reached”. The student area is
> > circled and controled by the students. There are alot of people
> > demonstrate to support them outside the area and on the Chang An street
> > which is in front of Tan’anmen.
> >
> > Beside Tan’anmen, the crowded areas are the places where the armies
> > are. The PLA rounds the city but the people round them. Hundreds and
> > thousands of people and students block at all the gateways. They
> > circle the soldier cars, the gas cars and the armoured cars. They tell
> > the soldiers the truth, they give them news paper, water and food.
> > Some soldiers droped their tears. They said that they did not know
> > what is happenning in Beijing and what to do here. A group of BeiDa’s
> > students and teachers went to “convey greeting to people’s son and
> > brother army” yesterday.
> >
> > So right now, the life in Beijing is very peaceful, there are no any
> > reason for the army to entry the city. The soldiers themselves don’t
> > want to get in to face to the students and the people there. But just
> > in case, a lot of people go to the streets in the evening and wait
> > there all night – they are ready to block the army’s cars using their
> > bodies, in the meantime, they are talking about the jokes of Li Peng,
> > shouting him abuses in the street.
> >
> > The martial law while was signed by Li Pang totally failed, nobody even
> > pay any attention to it. The demonstrations are still going on. The
> > government hasn’t done, even said anything to this after the martial
> > law was declared. The government already lose the control. I think
> > China is in a turning point and they have to fill the requests of the
> > people. I believe that the students and the people will win the
> > struggle.
> >
> > It is very very quiet this morning, it is said that there will be a big
> > demonstration this afternoon.
> >
> > I went to Tan’anmen very often these days. I have spent almost a night
> > with the hunger strikers there last week. I wish we had a “Sun
> > Microsystems supporting group”. Don’t worry please, I am no problem
> > here. We got a command from HK yesterday, it asked all foreign staffs
> > go to HK. [XXX] said it is not necessary. I think so too. The status
> > here is not so bad, “it is the best status during these 40 years”, [XXX]
> > said. He is going to stay here. In fact, he is one of people who
> > blocked the army’s cars in the nights. [XXX], do you wanna go with me
> > to see what type of guns the soldiers have if you are here?
> >
> > I can understand that how worry you were when you heard about the
> > martial law in Beijing. I hope I can tell you how strong the people
> > are and how great the students are. I am proud of them.
> >
> >
> > Xie Xie Ni, Wo De Peng You,
> >
> > – -[ XXX ]
> >
> >

Although this message was published in a discussion list at the time, I have not found it archived anywhere on the Web. I hope that at a future One Web Day, I will be able to publically show the full message with all of its headers and all identities, without fear of putting its originator in trouble.

Back then, I learnt how the Internet could be a medium for free speech, how it could bring freedom of speech to the world, how it gave a voice to the people in the street.

China did not have Internet in 1989 (it was first implemented in 1993), but UUCP email dial-up was already in place and email was somehow uncensored.

Lesson 2: the Internet is a warrant for your freedom.
Make sure it stays that way.

3. Creation of the .PS domain

A story about Internet Politics.

On 18 August 1996, having been the maintainer of the “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” document on International E-mail Accessibility for several years, I tracked Internet Connectivity worldwide, a bit like those people tracking twisters in the US Midwest. My list was referenced using the ISO3166 International Country Codes, some of which were used as Country Code Top Level Domain.

I received a message from someone close to the Palestinian Authority, asking for my input to create the .PS domain for the newly created Palestinian Territories. It had just been a short span of time after the signing of agreements between Israel & the Palestinian Authority. Palestinians wanted to establish a symbolic presence in cyberspace.

I pointed them to ISO (International Organisation for Standardization, a United Nations funded Organisation), then liaised with the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA – namely Jon Postel) to create the domain etc.

The problem was that ISO had noted .PS as “reserved” and it therefore had not yet been officially created as a confirmed country code. But IANA needed issuance of a Country Codes that had been confirmed and published.

I pointed out that .AC had also been on the “reserved” but not published list and it had already been given a ccTLD. Call me a smart alec…

My pro-bono help landed me in the middle of a “flame” war between militant jewish & palestinian groups and I received hate email. Correspondents obviously thought I had more to do with the whole procedure than I really had. Events which I saw in the TV news had now entered my mailbox. Oh boy…

The whole process of creating a new Country Code Top Level Domain took time and I felt the heat after making this suggestion, was accused of taking sides, was even asked to “revert my decision” (uh? what decision?). I wondered if this was the true life of a politician…

Tatreez Embroidery from the Palestine Shop

Ultimately, .PS was created on 22 March 2000 (and I had absolutely no authority in the matter whatsoever).

I learnt that the Internet had become political. What I had considered a communication resource was now an instrument of geopolitical power. Little did I ever imagine how even more political it would become in the future!

Lesson 3: the Internet is a powerful political force. It is feared but also used by governments and militants. It is used by various stakeholders with strong political agendas.
For better? For worse? Only time will tell.

4. 911

A story about communication.

WTC image from wikipedia

WTC image from wikipedia

On 11 Sept 2001, I lived in Manhattan. 7 minutes after the first aircraft struck the twin towers on that horrific day, my father called me from France. I lived midtown and was therefore thankfully safe and out of danger.
This is the last call that I received for nearly a week.

As the news of the emergency spread worldwide, telephone coverage was overloaded. The Mobile Phone network is the first medium that went dead, requisitioned by emergency services. “No network”, it said. Then it was the turn of landlines. You would pick up the handset and had a busy signal. A while later, I could dial all Manhattan numbers only. As the Island was closed to the outside world, we lived times of total isolation, whilst we had so much emotional outpour to tell.

But the local dial-up number for my ISP still worked. Although very slow (due to overloading), the Internet was my only means of telling all my friends worldwide about what was going on, and for the first three days after the disaster, I wrote a daily summary of what I had done/seen/lived. I wrote it while breathing the stench of burning plastic and grilled flesh that blew our way when the winds blew in our direction.

I learnt how resilient the Internet could be in times of disaster, be it 911, an earthquake, a tsunami. I learnt how important it was to have a connection to the outside world because believe it or not, being isolated in Manhattan, we felt alone. You have to understand how empty Manhattan was below 34th Street to understand what I mean. I had read about this kind of feeling when, a few years earlier, I received daily email updates from a friend of mine living in Anguilla in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo.

This time, I was on the other end of the line.

To me, the Internet was a lifeline to my family and friends around the world. To emergency services, it was a means of communicating with a lot of people when the infrastructure was overloaded.

Lesson 4: with times of turmoil appearing on the horizon, we as a people need to be more and more in touch with each other and with the rest of the world. In order to survive, our civilization needs the Internet.
No Internet, no future. That’s all.

My experiences are no different than those of thousands and thousands of other Internet users. But I’ve come to realise that the Internet (and by that, I obviously also mean the Web) was shaped by the millions of experiences lived by its users.

This is what I would like to celebrate on One Web Day.

Olivier MJ Crepin-Leblond, PhD.

5 Responses to “Living the Internet”

  1. Neha Shrivastava on July 26th, 2008 at 7:28 pm

    Very nicely written article, reminds me of the recent quakes in Chengdu, China, one of my friends is from thr & we (the friends here in Toulouse) were all so worried because of no news fm her,cdn t get her on the phone and then to our relief, the net magically started working in a day and she emailed to say that her friends & family are safe :) Can ‘t imagine life without the Internet anymore

  2. A great long-term perspective on the internet experience! I remember getting some of your original emails by telnetting to (one of) my unix account(s) at Southampton in 1988. It was so confusing at the time — incoming and outgoing emails were visible only on different machines (which I didn’t know) so it took me the longest time to figure out how to view your replies to my replies. I didn’t even know you had replied, so your replies got increasingly frustrated as a result. A weird sort of one-way email experience, bit like some bizarre Alan Turing test.

  3. I agree! Very well written!

    I can’t remember the last time i posted a letter or bought a stamp.

    Well done Olivier

  4. [...] he has learned about the importance of the Internet.  You can find his post in its entirety here, as well as on [...]

  5. Pauline Graham on July 30th, 2008 at 4:04 pm

    For those, like me, not conversant with the outreach of the internet, your four stories,
    Olivier, are a fascinating revelation. Many, many thanks.

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