The Current

This man sent the first online message 50 years ago. He's since seen the web's dark side emerge

When Leonard Kleinrock sent the first online message on Oct. 29, 1969, he couldn't have anticipated how the network would both advance and divide our society. But while there is a dark side to the web, Kleinrock says there are still ways to combat it.

The dark side of the internet emerged as it got into the hands of nefarious people: Leonard Kleinrock

Leonard Kleinrock stands next to the Interface Message Processor machine at his office in the UCLA Computer Science Department in Los Angeles. Kleinrock created the basic principles of packet switching, the technology underpinning the internet. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
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The first online message ever sent between two computers was "lo."

It was supposed to say "log," but the computer sending the message — based at UCLA — crashed before the letter "g" was typed. A computer at Stanford 560 kilometres away was supposed to fill in the remaining characters "in," as in "log in."

"The idea of the network was you could sit at one computer, log on through the network to a remote computer and use its services there," Leonard Kleinrock, distinguished professor of computer science at UCLA, told The Current's interim host Laura Lynch.

That failed message on Oct. 29, 1969 served as a premonition for what was to come. "The very first message ever on the internet was 'lo' —  as in 'lo and behold,'" said Kleinrock. 

50 years later, the internet has become so ubiquitous that it has almost been rendered invisible. There's hardly an aspect in our daily lives that hasn't been touched and transformed by it.  

Kleinrock has traced the internet from its origins in research institutions to its public utility — and even its more sinister side. Here is part of his conversation with Lynch.

Take us back to that day 50 years ago. Did you have the sense that this was going to be something you'd be talking about a half a century later? 

Well, yes and no. Four months before that message was sent, there was a press release that came out of UCLA in which it quotes me as describing what my vision for this network would become. 

What I missed ... was that this is going to become a social network. People talking to people.- Leonard Kleinrock

Basically what it said is that this network would be always on, always available. Anybody with any device could get on at anytime from any location, and it would be invisible.

Well, what I missed ... was that this is going to become a social network. People talking to people. Not computers talking to computers, but [the] human element.

Can you briefly explain what you were working on in that lab? Why were you trying to get computers to actually talk to one another?

As an MIT graduate student, years before, I recognized I was surrounded by computers and I realized there was no effective [or efficient] way for them to communicate.

I did my dissertation, my research, on establishing a mathematical theory of how these networks would work. But there was no such network existing. AT&T said it won't work and, even if it does, we want nothing to do with it. 

So I had to wait around for years until the Advanced Research Projects Agency within the Department of Defence decided they needed a network to connect together the computer scientists they were supervising and supporting.

Kleinrock was the first to develop the underlying principles of packet switching, the communications technology of the Internet, a decade before the internet itself was founded. He is now a distinguished professor of computer science at UCLA. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)

That early net connected researchers, scientists and different universities and labs. Then it made the leap to the net that connects virtually everyone. How did it happen? 

That network was considered an engineering scientific research network, and the people who were using it were scientists. We were sending files around, sending emails around, using others' resources.

The dot-coms began to see what was going on and they were interested mostly in email. Al Gore helped create what is referred to as the "information superhighway" — a very high-speed network.

The web came out, which was an easy graphical interface for the user. This thing began to leak out to the world.

At that point, a rather interesting and unfortunate event occurred. 

In those early days, I considered the network to be going through its teenage years ... I thought that one day this network would mature and grow up. Well, in fact, it took a turn for the worse.- Kleinrock

The first spam message was sent out on April 12, 1994, by a couple of lawyers who were advertising their services. And we said, you can't use this for commercial purposes. You can't advertise on our network, [which] is a scientific research network. 

But at that point, the cat was out of the bag. And suddenly big industry noticed this was not a system for doing scientific research. This was a money-making machine.

For all the promise of the internet, it has also developed some dark sides that I'm guessing pioneers like yourselves never anticipated.

We did not. I knew everybody on the internet at that time, and they were all well-behaved and they all believed in an open, shared free network. So we did not put in any security controls. 

When the first spam email occurred, we began to see the dark side emerge as this network reached nefarious people sitting in basements with a high-speed connection, reaching out to millions of people instantaneously, at no cost in time or money, anonymously until all sorts of unpleasant events occurred, which we called the dark side.

But in those early days, I considered the network to be going through its teenage years. Hacking to spam, annoying kinds of effects. I thought that one day this network would mature and grow up. 

Well, in fact, it took a turn for the worse when nation states, organized crime and extremists came in and began to abuse the network in severe ways.

Is there any part of you that regrets giving birth to this? 

Absolutely not. The greater good is much more important. 

We should have put in some security controls early on. We should have put in a way to authenticate users, too. So I know that when I'm talking to [a user named] "Laura Lynch," it's really you. 

And I want to make sure that any file you send is what you intended it to be. It hasn't been intercepted or altered. We didn't put that in and we should have.

You were talking about being a teenager before. Does it feel like a middle-aged person to you now?

It is I would say a young adult, because it has a long way to go to really mature and rid itself of some of the problems we have.

When nation states come in and put boundaries around the internet and stop communicating freely across those boundaries, we end up with a balkanised network. And I do feel and worry if that occurs, we're going to lose the free, open cross-border capability. 


Written by Oliver Thompson. Produced by Julie Crysler and Peter Mitton. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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