Before the Internet was created, the U.S. military had developed and deployed communications networks, including a network known as ARPANET. Uses of the networks were restricted to military personnel and the researchers who developed the technology. Many people regard the ARPANET as the precursor of the Internet. From the 1970s until the late 1980s the Internet was a U.S. government-funded communication and research tool restricted almost exclusively to academic and military uses. It was administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF). At universities, only a handful of researchers working on Internet research had access. In the 1980s the NSF developed an “acceptable use policy” that relaxed restrictions and allowed faculty at universities to use the Internet for research and scholarly activities. However, the NSF policy prohibited all commercial uses of the Internet. Under this policy advertising did not appear on the Internet, and people could not charge for access to Internet content or sell products or services on the Internet.
By 1995, however, the NSF ceased its administration of the Internet. The Internet was privatized, and commercial use was permitted. This move coincided with the growth in popularity of the World Wide Web (WWW), which replaced file transfer as the application used for most Internet traffic. The difference between the Internet and the Web is similar to the distinction between a highway system and a package delivery service that uses the highways to move cargo from one city to another: The Internet is the highway system over which Web traffic and traffic from other applications move. The Web consists of programs running on many computers that allow a user to find and display multimedia documents (documents that contain a combination of text, photographs, graphics, audio, and video). Many analysts attribute the explosion in use and popularity of the Internet to the visual nature of Web documents. By the end of 2000, Web traffic dominated the Internet—more than 80 percent of all traffic on the Internet came from the Web.
Companies, individuals, and institutions use the Internet in many ways. Companies use the Internet for electronic commerce, also called e-commerce, including advertising, selling, buying, distributing products, and providing customer service. In addition, companies use the Internet for business-to-business transactions, such as exchanging financial information and accessing complex databases. Businesses and institutions use the Internet for voice and video conferencing and other forms of communication that enable people to telecommute (work away from the office using a computer). The use of electronic mail (e-mail) speeds communication between companies, among coworkers, and among other individuals. Media and entertainment companies use the Internet for online news and weather services and to broadcast audio and video, including live radio and television programs. Online chat allows people to carry on discussions using written text. Instant messaging enables people to exchange text messages in real time. Scientists and scholars use the Internet to communicate with colleagues, perform research, distribute lecture notes and course materials to students, and publish papers and articles. Individuals use the Internet for communication, entertainment, finding information, and buying and selling goods and services.