In 1969, the internet was officially launched by the US military-funded Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), connecting computer networks at various US universities and research organisations.
In Australia, the CSIRO’s predecessor organisation had built Australia’s first computer in 1949. In 1963, CSIRONET was established by Trevor Pearcey to link the organisation’s computers, and by 1976 a total of 50 computers were connected.
From the mid-1970s, micro-computers led to the personal computer revolution. Early online services and providers such as CompuServ and America Online (AOL) offered services. Telecom Australia was an influential pioneer, promoting a competing telecommunications standard as alternative to what was eventually chosen by AARNet, and internationally, the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP). The Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) movement saw FidoNet (a US-based system) offering textbased computer-to-computer services popular in Australia also.
Australian enthusiasts made dial-up connections over international telephone lines to the internet during the 1970s, but the first permanent connection was made possible by the Australian Computer Science network (ACSnet) in the early 1980s. In mid-1989, the University of Melbourne connected to the University of Hawaii, and thus to the internet. The same year, the Australian Academic and Research Network (AARNet) was established. Geoff Huston was AARNet’s first employee as national technical manager, and between April and May 1990, eight universities were connected.
Consistent with its international partners, AARNet’s rules restricted access; however, from1989 a fledging industry of internet service providers (ISPs) was set up as either non-for-profit organisations or small businesses to connect organisations and individuals outside AARNet’s members, including DIALix in Western Australia, Pegasus operating from Byron Bay, the not-for-profit APANA (Australian Public Access Network Association) established in 1992 and Global Info-Links, the first community scheme, established in Ipswich, Queensland, in 1994.
From the mid-1990s, a competitive market in internet backbone, wholesale and retail services grew rapidly. Without much fanfare, in 1995 the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee (AVCC) controversially transferred AARNet’s management of its network and commercial customer list—essentially much of the Australian internet at that stage—to Telstra. In 1997, Optus was the surprise winner of the AARNet tender for the national education and research network. To put their own affairs on a business footing, in 1998 the universities established AARNet Pty Ltd as a stand-alone company under their control.
By the mid-1990s, many smaller ISPs had given way to larger concerns—especially the dominant Telstra and fast-growing second telecommunications carrier Optus. One survivor was iiNet, established in Perth in 1993 by Michael Malone and Michael O’Reilly in the Malone family garage. Malone retired as CEO in 2014, after iiNet celebrated its 20th anniversary. Another new entrant was OzEmail, established in 1994 by Australian Personal Computer magazine founder Sean Howard with partners Trevor Kennedy and Malcolm Turnbull.
Investment in the internet business burgeoned in the Australian chapter of what become known as the dot.com boom, with most established mainstream media proprietors trying their hands—not always with success. In this period, existing media concerns invested heavily in internet business, and internet businesses—notably Telstra, underpinned by its fixed and mobile telecommunications revenues—established significant stakes in the press and broadcasting.
For the internet’s first three decades, internet services were provided under US and other government aegis, and by research institutions, for education and research purposes, and acceptable use rules proscribed commerce. Once the ban was lifted in 1992, and the internet grew dramatically, the open public internet saw core operations of the internet commercialised. The provision of internet domain names, for instance, moved from one individual custodian, University of Melbourne computer programmer Robert Elz, and become the function of a new company, Melbourne IT, in 2006. Melbourne IT’s stocks soared on the initial public offering in late 1999, but by 2001 had sunk dramatically.
New media professions and businesses arose with web design and hosting, as did various software, code and program development niches associated with growing internet functionality. Australian firms competed internationally for internet services, or provided niche products and services such as Trumpet Winsock for Windows clients (Peter Tattam), HotDog Web Editor (Steve Outtrim) and Hotline Communications (Adam Hinkley’s forerunner of peer-to-peer (P2P) software and BitTorrent). Some businesses were short-lived—for instance, Australian search engines such as Web Wombat, Anzwers and LookSmart (set up in San Francisco by former student politicians Tracey Ellery and Evan Thornley) were eclipsed by the likes of AltaVista and Yahoo!, which in turn were sidelined by Google (now synonymous with internet searching). Australians made important contributions elsewhere, with Google Maps developed in Google’s Sydney office, and the CSIRO pioneering wi-fi. Australians made important contributions elsewhere, with Google Maps developed in Google’s Sydney office. Australian figures also loomed large in the development of internet policy and governance, such as scientist Geoff Huston and Paul Twomey, CEO of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2003 to 2009.
By the mid-1990s, the internet was being popularised, and policy-makers turned their attention to affordability and equity challenges. Programs were specifically devised to extend coverage to non-metropolitan areas. The gap is now much narrower, but differential patterns of access and use between metropolitan and non-metropolitan locations persist—especially between Indigenous and non-Indigenous users in remote locations.
By the end of the 1990s, there was a widespread sense that the internet formed part of Australian society and especially its media system. Through newsgroups, file transfer programs, and email lists, the internet become an important new distribution system, where all manner of groups could circulate material, express views and find audiences. Email displaced letter writing, postal services and the fax. Messaging and chat applications become important forms of interpersonal communication.
The rise of websites provided a relatively easy way for individuals and groups to gain new freedom of expression, and then become an essential part of business, government, information and service provision, as well as everyday life routines and relationships. The credit for the first Australian website goes to the Australian National University’s Professor David Green for the Life website on biological diversity. Many culturally significant websites followed, such as the cyberfeminist e-zine Geekgirl, created by Rosie Cross.
As blogging achieved recognition in 2003–04, the Australian blogosphere grew in size and influence. The emergence of blogs marks the moment where the internet gained recognition for its potential to supplement and supplant existing news media—and to create a new dimension to intimate and private, as well as new forms of public, communication and audiences. The open, collaborative form of Wikis also proved popular, not least with substantial Australian contributions and entries to the default reference work of school students and adults alike, Wikipedia. The role of blogs shifted with the advent of Twitter (sometimes called ‘microblogging’), and various social networking systems and social media (the most widely used over the period including Myspace, Facebook and LinkedIn).
In the early 2000s, high-capacity, fast broadband largely replaced slower dial-up connections. The best access was available via subscription television hybrid fibre coaxial cable networks in capital cities, installed by Foxtel (a joint venture of Telstra and News Corporation) and Optus. Outside these areas, broadband was provided by satellite (by Austar, acquired by Foxtel in 2012) or by the copper public switched telecommunication network, with ASDL technology supporting vigorous retail competition. Internet speeds still remain slow in many country (and some other) areas today, but generally across Australia, user expectations grew—and ensuing frustrations saw the National Broadband Network (NBN) eventuate as the promised solution. NBN plans changed with the 2013 election of the Abbott Coalition government, so actual broadband speeds and usage allowances will depend on eventual implementation.
Despite variable quality, broadband networks, internet technology and service development, and design combined to see the internet increasingly become the default platform for many services across the media and entertainment.
Video became a new media-rich phenomenon, courtesy of YouTube, acquired by search giant Google. From 2005, downloading of television programs emerged as a phenomenon—one that, by the early 2010s, drew a response from commercial and national broadcasters with establishment of catch-up television, marketing of programs and availability via digital content models such as Apple’s iTunes. The direct broadcasting of television via the internet (so-called IPTV) did not attract significant audiences, as content was either freely available via downloading programs such as BitTorrent and associated sites, or new business models and internet media providers, with Australian consumers even prepared to obtain Virtual Private Network addresses in the United States to access Netflix, Hulu and others who ‘geoblocked’ their US-based services, and had not yet expanded operations into Australia.
Music distribution had its origins in early internet, become widespread with the World Wide Web (with, for instance, the early Next site, set up by Rolling Stone), and pervasive on internet-enabled mobile and portable media in the 2010s. Online video and computer gaming was a widely shared and significant part of the internet for all demographics, sustaining a small yet significant games industry.
The potential of the internet for freedom of speech, as well as new cultural possibilities and social practices, was embraced by a wide and diverse range of groups. However, many concerns were raised, with ensuing public debate and eventually legal and policy responses. Inappropriate and offensive content—whether sexual, inciting racial vilification, trolling, defamation or cyber-bullying—has proven difficult to address. Various federal Communications Ministers, from Senator Richard Alston through Senator Stephen Conroy to Malcolm Turnbull, initiated measures. Alston’s Broadcasting Services Amendment (Online Services) Act 1999, amending the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, took a complaints-based co-regulation approach, in which the Internet Industry Association of Australia was obliged to take a lead role in developing Codes of Practice. In the Rudd Labor government, Conroy sought to filter offensive content at the source with his internet filtering proposal—dropped after a widespread backlash.
Internet freedom emerged as a hot-button issue for Australian consumers—not just in relation to censorship, but also the threats to sharing of content represented by 2010–11 US intellectual property and copyright Bills aiming to tackle piracy. Landmark Australian cases on piracy were taken by record companies against Kazaa (eventually settled in 2006), and by television and film industries against iiNet (culminating in a key 2012 High Court decision dismissing the suit). For many Australian citizens, such issues highlighted the importance of internet governance as a national as well as an international issue.
For an increasing number of Australians, the internet has become a mobile experience, via the smartphones, tablet computers, and apps that have become popular since 2007. This was a harbinger of the many technologies that relied upon, and came to change, the internet, including location-based technologies, sensing networks and the much-anticipated Internet of Things, where every device is interconnected.
REFs: G. Goggin (ed.), Virtual Nation (2004); G. Korporaal, 20 Years of the Internet in Australia (2009).