So there I was, at 16, with my Commodore 64, a Programmers Reference Guide and no assembler, translating assembly instructions into hexadecimal opcodes, by hand, then typing them in as DATA statements in decimals. A friend had one of these new fangled Modem thingies, and he could connect to the various bulletin boards, where we would swap our C64 BASIC code into their gaping ether to gain enough upload credits so we could download a few grainy gifs of grot. The modem could handle a blistering 14.4Kbps in one direction at a time.
Never mind that the forests outside our houses were a veritable cornucopia of grot, Reader’s Wives, Playboy, and Fiesta. We even found a copy of Roue once but the stories of lesbian hockey girls in private schools being lightly frotted with a feather duster did little for us.
Nope, we were l337 haxx0rs, way before even such a term was coined. Warez was a tape to tape recorder with the volume set just so and fingers crossed that the game would load in the 15 minutes we were used to. We’d write endless junk programs and texts, just to up our upload ratio, and browse the dark edges of the Bulletin Boards that advertised in magazines like Byte and Computer Weekly. Scans of The Anarchists Cookbook were the Holy Grail, and much like that relic, just as elusive. The Bulletin Boards were quite reasonable in their demand – share your stuff if you want ours, even though leechers like ourselves added little of value.
Time went by, and the Bulletin Boards became internet gateways. At this time, modems had a direct connection to each other and would use a bewildering array of protocols to communicate, like Kermit, X and Y protocol and so on. Very basic, but it did the job. The amount of cross protocol translation must have been horrifying for BB owners just to allow the Internet in.
Back then there was no real Internet as we understand it now, just a loose affiliation of the various University computers which went under the name of the Joint Academic Network, or JANet for short. Bigger universities had a few connections to other educational establishments, using TCPIP as the common transmission protocol.
There were a lot of US military computers using TCPIP at the time though.
I eventually made it to a University, with the dank rows of Solaris and HPUX workstations glowing malevolently under a haze of stale cigarette smoke. Here was the dial up bulletin board, on steroids.
There was no internet, just ftp. Being Unix land, the best you could do to find stuff was to finger for it, or use gopher. These command line utilities would let you search for files on the networks and then you could FTP them back to your local area.
Each department had a little homepage, with a lovely animated gif of a little figure in a hard hat, shovelling something, and a bright “Under Construction!” banner below it.
To click on a hyperlink ffor the first time was like nothing else. No faffing about searching for some esoteric link, but to go straight to the information? It was like wonderland. While William Gibson’s Burning Chrome had seemed like a far fetched scifi tale, it was closer to where we were headed.
The Free Software Foundation became a Thing. Richard Stallman vs Eric Raymond for starters. Linux / Unix vs Mac, Vs PC – the golden age of the tech holy war.
28.8K modems changed everything. Dial up internet could now begin to deliver a lumpy, low res and buggy http experience. But it was a hell of an improvement over a text console and ftp prompt. Not least, you could get a who lot of free grot on usenet, which you had to stitch together from the numerous parts it was delivered in. You could also get a whole lot of the Anarchists Cookbook for real.
Usenet was basically a bulletin board where you could post messages with attachments. It was basically a disordered facebook; each post was listed sequentially, ordered by time. There were limits on the size of attachments so if you wanted to upload anything of size, it would have to be chopped up into smaller parts and posted one by one. Byte ordering on the network was a problem; some machines operated on (gasp) 16 bits instead of 8 and some even managed 32 bit words. These of course would be broken into bytes (8 bits – a bit is a 1 or a 0), so for exchange across different bitness systems the chunks would have to be UUencoded into a canonical form. Some 16 bit machines liked their most significant bytes first, some last. These schemes were known as little endian and big endian. You can read a bit more about Usenet here. In short, it was a pain in the arse uploading stuff, and a pain in the arse hunting down all the seperate bits of a single post, stitching them together and then UUDecoding them. There were utilities to do this for you, but the point I am making is that copying large binary files like pictures and scans was a lot of faff and you needed to be quite techie to be able to do it.
There was also IRC – internet relay chat. This is basically instant messenger (but text only) – you would log on to an IRC server and be able to chat with everyone else on the chatroom. You could message privately too, and DCC (direct copy) files to each other. Again, a bit of a bar to n00bs as some commands needed to make it work were a bit esoteric. There was quite a lot of illegal activity on the IRC servers (alongside a load more people just chatting), from hacked software to pr0n to hacking guides and exploits. IRC is still the dirty back streets of the internet, even moreso since the demise of Silk Road; it is where you would go for the distasteful, shameful and illegal. A bit like Soho.
The September that never ended was when a lot of the US online providers opened up to the wider internet. Whereas previously the internet was the preserve of the academic and the committed amateur, the place was flooded. Imagine a bunch of tourists being set loose in the National Science Museum. No relics and displays were protected, because previously the guests knew not to touch. It was endless REEEEE on all sides, from the internetizen cognoscenti and from the hapless n00bs disregarding netiquette time and time again.
As webservers got a bit more sophisticated, it was not uncommon for people to start websites on their own desktops at home. One such website was Slashdot.org, a techie website – “News for Nerds, stuff that matters”. It gained peak popularity after the posting of the Hellmouth articles, and had a commenting system far beyond Disqus and the like. You could rate a comment 0-5 and have it as Insightful, Informative, Interesting, Funny. Your overall average posting score would give you a “karma” – the more uprated you are then you eventually pass a threshold where you can then rate other comments. It worked, rather than superficial “likes” and “dislikes”. It gave birth to kuroshin.org, which was the codebase re-written. It is worth reading the annals of K5. K5 was user generated content , some good, some bad and some in between. The strength was in the community but this was buttressed by the comments system – untrusted users could not post links for spamming Range Rovers, mildy trusted users could moderate comments, very trusted users could post content. Before a headline article was published, it would have to be voted as good enough by trusted members and hit a certain ratio of positive to negative votes. A risk of an echo chamber but many would vote up something they disagreed with just for the discussion to follow. It was also when people had no way of seeing the link behind the text – a HTML tag is composed of the display text and the website target and early browsers would show the display text only. It lead to many people thinking they were clicking on something useful only to be directed to Goatse.cx, which is a pretty grim picture and I have deliberately not linked to it. This is why your browser now has a “hover over link” functionality to see where it leads, URL shortening services like bit.ly have obviously gotten around this.
While all this technological change was going on there was a fair bit of societal change too. The nerdy guy who was into computers (and it was predominantly blokes) became less derided and a little cool. The Open Source Foundation was created, in response to software companies being the gatekeepers to device drivers and not providing them except on tied-in operating systems of their choice. It ended up where people would get m4d 1337 pr0pz for writing something useful and giving it away, source code included, so others could use it, learn from it and contribute to it. The h4xx0r sp33k came as part and parcel from this; substituting numbers to avoid auto detect of banned words in IRC rooms. It was of course adopted by the wannabees, faking 1337 sp33k (elite speak) to sound like they knew how to code.
One of the loudest proponents of the Free Software movement was Eric S Raymond, who wrote some interesting texts – the Cathedral and the Bazaar and Homesteading the Noosphere. There was bad blood between him and Richard Stallman; RMS having produced something use use and value – the GPL. It is a software license that is “copyleft” whereas other licenses tell you waht you can’t do, GPL tells you what you can. GPL’d stuff is free to use, but you have to provide the source code on demand so others can rebuild your work into something that runs on people’s computers. This was a game changer in the war against the ongoing encroachment of MicroSoft at the time, who were practicing the Embrace-Extend-Extinguish methodology at the time. MS would barge into an internet standard, add a whole load of stuff, then make a MS only competitor technology only available on MS platforms. There was a lot of REEEEEE over this, and curiously Apple, doing much the same, were largely insulated from it. Most notably, MS added code to Windows that prevented it starting from an MSDOS competitor, DRDOS. Back then, Windows would run on top of MSDOS or similar, to give you the GUI experience that Apple and OS2 were delivering. Windows was a big leap forwards, but hamstrung because MS were trying to carve out a new hegemony in the GUI worktop space. Such was their initial hubris, they didn’t even provide a TCPIP network stack out of the box – just their competitor, NetBIOS. We had to buy a third party application, WinSock, in order to do basic internetty stuff.
It was the golden age of crackers and trolls. Routers were pretty much unlogged so the black hats only had to worry about local connections being logged; spoof your IP address (see El Cnutador articles passim) and you were largely invisible. MicroSoft’s awful patching of TCPIP into their networking stack left many machines wide open for attack – port 135 was left open for file and print sharing so the unscrupulous could scan across a range of IP addresses until they found port 135 accepting connections and they would be away. Frequently an attack would need a buffer overflow exploit in order to break in, but if you follow the link you will see you need some skillz to do this. Black hatters would then publish “rootkits” which automated the process and these would be downloaded from IRC by so called “scriptkiddies” to run. Scriptkiddies were widely derided; it was easy to download, point and fire the weapon without having done the work to be able to write the tools in the first place. As email opened up to the world, trojans would be spammed to the unsuspecting; these programs would take over your machine and allow someone to remote control your machine, logging keystrokes to steal passwords for other online sites, use your machine to attack others or just brick the machine. Security vulnerabilities were rife; a lot of computer code that ran operating system was running on blind trust and was vulnerable to “exploits” where the OS could be tricked into granting more access than the owners wanted. FreeBSD Unix was designed to be secure from the ground up, although misconfiguration could still allow an attacker to break in. MicroSoft Operating Systems would be hit time and time again, and the endless patch cycle of security updates was launched. Usually an exploit, or spl0it would be discovered, be traded as a “zero day spl0it” on IRC and cause mayhem until a security patch was pushed out. Botnets would be created out of compromised machines; an instruction would be issued to all affected machines either by a message posted on an IRC channel, a file on a website, an email or a direct communication to the zombie machine. This is still in use today; the WannaCry ransomware phoned home to check if it should still be that’s gratitude for you. That case is going to be interesting when it gets to court. Zombie botnets can be used for all sorts of bad things; attempting to brute force a password to admin rights on a website, or just a plain old DDOS (Distributed Denial Of Service) attack. DDOS attacks are really hard to defend from as by blocking them you also stop legitimate users from accessing your site. Often, DDOS attacks will send badly formed TCPIP packets (messages) that attempt to slow the target even further by forcing remedial network activity. The aim is to either deny the use of the website to legitimate users, or to force the website into a state where it can be taken over and compromised.
Note the usage of crackers rather than hackers. Crackers are people who break into things, hackers are people that write code to make the hardware sing, work around a software limitation or to squeeze just a little bit more of performance. The useless MSM stole the word and repurposed it.
At this time there were a lot of US military machines left wide open on the net and it was a matter of pride in some circles to be able to take over one of these machines. Because TCPIP was designed to be open and trusting, by getting control of a “minor” machine on an outer part of the network a blackhatter could escalate their permissions on other machines inside the network. Over time, the missing machines were located and locked down, although even as recently as 2002 some machines were woefully unsecured. To describe Mackinnon as a hacker is disingenuous at best; he just logged on to servers and tried out a few passwords until he got in. Not even scriptkiddie level. But the media jumped on the “evil haxx0r” angle for cheap headlines and the US government went a bit mental because their national security had been compromised in the simplest way.
Trolling was indeed an artform back then; post some unsubstantiated “facts” and then argue the toss in the comments. Trolling took a good understanding of both the technology, morality or legality involved, and a good insight of the psychology of the trolled. Strident techies were one of the easiest targets. The online trolls met in IRC rooms to plot runs on websites, and eventually made their own website now sadly defunct. Adequacy.org was the high point in trolling, the articles Is My Son a Computer Hacker? drawing howls of protest from the tech community and the still relevant to this day Why The Bombings Mean That We Must Support My Politics. That last one is really worth a read IMHO. Sadly the media have now limited the trolling label to be shitposting, namecalling and flaming. True trolling is largely dead.
Linux became popular at this time; a PC based re-implementation of UNIX like clones. And all for free. Some companies, such as RedHat and SuSe, did the hard work of putting all the components together in one distribution to make it easy to install. To this day, Linux is still not a popular desktop OS but has made great strides in the server room. The argument still rages – is Linux ready for the desktop? Installation would require some in depth knowledge of configuration files and was frustrating even for techies to get working. In recent years, Ubuntu and Mint distributions have made great strides on usability and installs are relatively pain free. Linux runs well on old under-powered hardware for basic stuff like web browsing and document authoring, but suffers as few games can run on it.
Then came 1Mb Fibre to city centres, which was a massive step up in connection speeds. It was capable of proper bidirectional traffic too; it could download and upload at the same time quite comfortably. Gamers loved the edge it gave them in games like DOOM and Unreal Tournament – latency being key. People could host their own websites even more easily now, and this led to the JenniCam site being set up, an interesting experiment in Lifecasting. Obviously the pr0n barons were also into the internet, by 2013 30 % of internet traffic was pr0n. Much like the Betamax and VHS technologies, pr0n drove a lot of innovation for online services such as bandwidth management and online payments.
It was a time where the dotcom boom was at its height, people were making and losing big sums of cash. Nerds had gone from being pitiable in the public eye to cool, and now rich. Internet piracy was rife, from mp3s of music then latterly films, and “war3z” (software), all facilitated by strides in distributed sharing systems like Napster then latterly Kazaa then BitTorrent. Legacy companies were caught flatfooted and sought to protect their income through the courts. Seeking to ruin a few filesharers put encourager les autres kind of backfired a few times. At the time there were a lot of calls by the sensible for the film and music industry to offer online paid for content; however seeing as the protection on DVDs had already been broken and the MP3 music format was being pirated, music and film execs were reluctant to push online services. When they finally did, it was with poor quality clunky interfaces that clearly had the content owner’s interests at heart with very little to appeal to the died. The media companies lobbied hard in the USA for laws to protect their property and it was instructional to see how far corporate lobbying could go in the shaping of internet policy and law. It was one of the first legal and social battles to be fought online; given that the instigators of the lobbying for an internet crackdown were owners or had other interests in news media, people were distrustful of what they read in the papers. Instead of having to go to the time and expense of printing and posting leaflets to activists in order to put pressure on their elected delegates in Congress and the Senate, a lot of the fightback came from online sources; the EFF and so on could rally their supporters and gain new ones cheaper and easier than before. Articles were published pointing out the links between newspapers, news channels on TV and the content owners, a widespread questioning of the impartiality of the news industry for the first time.
In the UK the shutdown of online piracy was achieved in a very New Labour way, and carried on under Cameron and May’s Continuity New Labour; the pirated media. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders categorised the UK governmentas “Enemy of the Internet” – a category of countries with the highest level of internet censorship and surveillance that “mark themselves out not just for their capacity to censor news and information online but also for their almost systematic repression of Internet users”. I am not so sure what to conclude that the RWB site no longer carries the original Wayback machine.
Slow to permeate the consciousness of netizens, one thing that bears repeating is that the Internet Never Forgets. Once posted on the net, it is there forever. Poor Clair Swires had an email forwarded which sparked a bout internet hysteria that was global. Whether or not it was true, who knows? But it serves as a good reminder of to never believe anything you read on the internet; on the internet no one knows you’re a dog.
Once the dotcom boom was over, there was some grim attempts at making money from the internet, and it took the infrastructure some time to catch up. Broadband to the house was faster and faster, with undreamt of speeds being delivered to homes across the globe. Content providers started offering their wares legally and for money on the internet; Pandora was one of the big name online streaming music services that took off. It offered a way of creating your own radio station, playing a few songs you would ask for explicitly then moving on to a “you might like this” section, learning from your responses. Netflix and now.tv turned the broadcast TV market on its head, and I believe piracy has declined as a result of companies now selling their wares in a more accessible fashion.
It marked the beginning of the end for the idea that everything on the net is free. From collaborative roots in academia, to free software to free (pirated) music, videos and software, the net is now an online marketplace instead of the wild west of casual violence (cracking) and theft (piracy). There are still dangerous neighbourhoods like IRC, Trojan websites and the so-called Darknet (which is largely a media construct – the net is the net after all) but largely the net is a safe place to do business. As a result of the widespread use of secure connections internationally, the use of offshoring companies in technology and call centres has bloomed. Whereas the globalist agenda of importing cheap labour was largely ignored by the middle classes, the offshoring of jobs such as programming, HR, accountancy and so on has dropped both the number of positions and the remuneration for the job. I wonder if the fightback against globalism is somehow getting more traction because those on board with it are now being affected more? In societal terms, it does mean that the West is now interacting more with Asian, South American and Eastern European people day to day. It is also driving investment and living standards up in these countries, which can only be a good thing internationally; for the top tier Western nations’ populaces, perhaps not so much.
So here we are now. Twitter is basically mobile IRC with emojis and a SJW slant; FaceBook is your own personal Newsgroup with added online surveillance and virtue signalling. Our internet is being logged, scrutinised and made more accountable than ever before, yet technology is available to keep yourself private. Plus ca change and all that.
And yet, there has been a sea change in the last couple of years. Despite the arrests of “hate tweeters”, people are talking more and more with like-minded folk and realising there are more like them out there nationally and internationally. The fear of meeting random strangers In Real Life off the internet is no longer as strong, people are uniting around causes more than ever before. The chains of the politically correct Cultural Marxists are both being cut and strengthened, depending on which websites and social media profiles you follow. Donald Trump is circumventing the entrenched media with his use of Twitter to get his message out; mainstream media agendas are exposed through either being debunked or other views presented. In short, the tools of propaganda of the Establishment are being laid bare and countered by online activity.
There will be of course a backlash, with the brouhaha of Net Neutrality in the States and the endless surveillance of us all that the governments are now really getting up to speed with. The use of VPNs is only set to grow; as the service has more users so the technology will evolve and improve so the non-techies can install and go with ease. The Internet is not yet finished with the social disruption it has caused already so far; I think we are in for some interesting times in the next 5 years as the lies – both deliberate and by omission – of the Establishment prove harder to maintain. Politics is downstream from culture and the global, online culture is in the process of a huge shift.
© El Cnutador 2018