How old is the internet?

03 February 2022

We rarely stop to think about it, but many companies offering online services that we use every day have long since outgrown adolescence. Amazon was founded in 1994, Hotmail two years later. Google another two years later in 1998. Wikipedia went live in 2001, while Skype, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter were born respectively in 2003, 2004, 2005 and 2006.

For the exact birth of the internet, however, we must go back a few years. In the summer of 1991, Tim Berners-Lee announced his idea for the World Wide Web, which he developed together with the Belgian Robert Cailliau.

Many consider this to be the birth of the internet, but this is incorrect. Although we use the two terms interchangeably, the world wide web and the internet are not the same thing.

Without Internet there cannot be a www

Robert Cailliau worked at CERN. Together with his colleagues, he felt the need to make scientific data and measurement results accessible worldwide, and this is how the idea of the web was born. Until then, scientists shared that data via protocols distributed over computers connected to each other in a network. But that data was copied onto every device. This is obviously not efficient when the amount of data becomes larger,' explains Professor Emeritus Pierre Verbaeten (photo). He managed the .be zone from 1989 until 2000 and was thus there to see the baby steps of DNS Belgium.

The creation of the www also makes the difference with the internet clear. The latter is the collective name for all physical devices, cables, servers, routers, and computers that are connected to each other worldwide in physical networks.

The www as we know it today could not exist without the internet. It is the collection of software on servers and computers, the web pages, files, media, internet browsers... that communicate with each other via a protocol that connects all these things via the Internet.

The Internet is much older than the www

So, you could say that the World Wide Web turned thirty last year, in 2021. But the internet is a lot older. Back in 1968, the United States developed the ARPANET to be able to send files between computers connected via the same network. This is considered the forerunner of the internet.

'But it was only when the IP network was created that you could speak of the internet,' says Verbaeten. 'With IP, existing networks and the computers and servers connected to them could communicate with each other using protocols.' 

Initial protocols such as NCP proved to be inadequate quite rapidly. According to Verbaeten, it was only with the arrival of TCP/IP that one could speak of the internet. That protocol created a network of networks that integrated various technologies. On January 1st, 1983, the existing network was shut down and restarted with the TCP/IP protocol.

'When the Internet came to Belgium is a subject for debate among specialists.'

The Internet in Belgium

When the Internet came to Belgium is also a subject for debate among specialists. Especially since several events can be seen as the start of the Internet in our country. For example, the introduction of the top level domain ( TLD ) .be could be a starting point. Or the first IP connectivity. But there is also something to be said for transferring the .be name servers to Belgian soil. The fact that there are no documents that give exact dates for any of these events makes it even more difficult to determine the date of birth of the Internet in Belgium.

What is certain is that in 1988, e-mail services were available in the academic world in our country. Sending an e-mail was then just a tad more complex than it is today. 'E-mail addresses depended on the network you used', Verbaeten recalls. 'BITNET, for example, had agreed to give network nodes unique names and you could then use those to create e-mail addresses. To send an e-mail over Eunet, you had to indicate over which series of nodes you wanted to send data. In this way, e-mail would never be scalable, and the public would never use it, of course. Domain names allowed us to break away from that complex system and standardise e-mail addresses.' 

Suddenly, we had .be

'People who were involved in IT and networking asked for .be to be introduced'. Verbaeten found out about the existence of the .be TLD in a rather unusual way. 'We had submitted an application to create .be to the competent authority and were asked for additional information. Among other things, we had to show that the applicants represented the Internet community in Belgium.' 

'That was quite difficult, because the internet community in Belgium didn't exist yet, of course,' Verbaeten laughs. 'We then said that we were the administrators of the two networks being used and submitted the necessary documents. And then, for some time, the radio went silent. Until in 1989, we suddenly found out for ourselves that .be existed, because a colleague had received an e-mail from the United States on his .be-mail address.' In March 1991, Verbaeten had the .be name servers transferred to Belgium. The internet became a thing in our country.

'We did see possibilities on a large scale.'

Bigger than expected

As soon as Verbaeten and his colleagues had launched .be, they started thinking about good domain names for the KULeuven. 'You have to have a policy about how you use domain names, and you also have to think about the long term. We also quickly started a project to connect all buildings with each other via glass fibre cable. We sensed that the whole university would be using it.' 

The internet became just a little bit bigger than that. 'We did see possibilities on a large scale. But the whole evolution we went through in twenty, thirty years and the involvement of really everyone, nobody could have foreseen that,' says Verbaeten.

More regulation is needed

The rapid rise of the Internet in recent decades hasn't all been sunshine and roses though. 'In the early days, you knew who everyone was who connected to your network. Until the year 2000, we only allocated a .be domain name to organisations that could prove who they were,' says Verbaeten. 'Now you can register a domain name very quickly. On social media, you can spread all kinds of bad ideas anonymously. That is an unfavourable evolution. People should be able to be identified better.' 

If you can register a domain name anonymously and acquire it without much control, that opens the door to abuse such as phishing , fake web shops... 

'Such regulation, whereby the registrar or registry must be able to guarantee that they handle correct personal details, will be introduced anyway, even though it is not that easy from a technical point of view. Because of the registrar model, as a registry you do not have direct contact with the registrant of a domain name. It is not easy to get involved in that, but it certainly needs to evolve in that direction. DNS Belgium is taking great initiatives in that area, as it should,' says Verbaeten.

One of those initiatives is registrant verification, where people who register a domain name (the registrant) must prove that they are indeed who they claim to be in the data they use to register their domain name.

But DNS Belgium does much more than that to keep the Internet and the .be zone safe. You can find examples of this at

With this article, we support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.