From the Net to the Masses

How the Internet Became Commercial

A man walks past a lit sign and balloons that were used for the unveiling of Google's new Canadian engineering headquarters in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario January 14, 2016.  Peter Power / Reuters

In 1990, it would have been hard to imagine the commercial Internet. The Internet we know now began as a network of computers from research laboratories and college campuses. It had no market orientation: its software was free, and its function was more important than its appearances and user-friendliness. But somehow, from there, the Internet became the world’s commercial hub. The Internet boom turned out to be one of the greatest episodes of technological growth in U.S. history, and it changed the way that people live, work, and play.

More important, the Internet’s meteoric rise provides an extraordinary story of how a highly technical nonprofit experiment became a viable business enterprise. The unexpected transformation did not come out of a centralized effort to make the Internet commercial but, rather, through a series of innovations from the edges—from varied participants with differing ideas, needs, and desires for what it would become. By benefiting from multiple perspectives without the control of an overseeing entity, the Internet was able to flourish into an unrestrained network that could indeed be everything to everybody.


What we now call the Internet began as a series of loosely connected engineering projects, some of which were funded by the military. Much of that was channeled through a project organized through the Defense Department and its Department of Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which focused on fostering pathbreaking inventions. The Internet was just one of the many projects that DARPA worked on. Building off prototypes for a network of networks, it pushed the boundaries of network computing in the 1970s and early 1980s. From this unusual origin, the Web expanded to cover more locations and more research laboratories. 

In 1985, a piece of the project was spun off for use by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF invested in the technology for a variety of reasons. Principal among them was a desire to stretch the network’s capabilities to aid in research

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