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AFRIK-IT  April 1998

AFRIK-IT April 1998

Subject:

"On" the Internet [WAS Re: Defining the Internet]

From:

Jeff Cochrane 205 <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Sun, 12 Apr 1998 09:50:16 +0000

Content-Type:

text/plain

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text/plain (126 lines)

Greetings Afrik-ITers!

I've taken the liberty of changing the subject header for at least
my portion of this thread.  We "defined" the Internet, presumably to
everyone's satisfaction, using the words of Vinton Cerf and others
-- hopefully no one has any problems with Vinton, whatever problems
they may have with me!

Some fine contributions to this discussion!  Thanks to all!!  To
recapitulate:

The point made with the help of Vinton and others was that the
"Internet" or even the "internet" has to do with the interconnection
of networks using a commonly agreed protocol, rather than the
protocol in use by the individual constituent networks themselves.

We then discussed the various services of the Internet, including
email.  Anthony Brooks made the point that every computer "on" the
Internet must have an IP number, without exception, even to use
email.  Steve Huter concurred, with the further emphasis that this
IP number must be "unique".

However, Jorn Grotnes points out that you can use the two principal
services of the Internet ("principal" in my work in any event), email
and the Web, without having a valid IP number at all.  His comment is
well worth repeating:

> If you are on the inside of a gateway or firewall, your IP-address
> is irrelevant to the network. All our users have IP-addresses that
> would be "illegal " on the Internet, but it is only our gateway's
> IP address that is used. Of course it is valid to state that our
> users are not on the Internet (we do not offer browsing, Web
> browsing on a 9600bps line) but it is possible to offer both
> e-mail and browsing w/o each user having a valid Internet IP
> address.

Jorn's explanation is quite consistent with the definition of the
Internet of Vinton Cerf and others, focusing as it does on the IP
number of the "gateway," which is the device/software that is the
interface between a constituent network of the Internet and all the
other constituents.  Implicitly, it is only critical that the agreed
protocol, TCP/IP in the case of the Internet, or perhaps something
else in the case of various other internets, be in use between
network gateways.

Brad Jensen kindly and clearly provides us with the IP number of the
gateway computer in my partially hypothetical example (the username
was fictitious, but the host was real).  But it is important to
remember from Jorn's explanation that this is merely the IP
number of the **gateway**, and doesn't necessarily tell us
much about the nature of the protocols in use by the constituent
network past the gateway to my hypothetical user on eo.wn.apc.org.

Anthony Brooks speculates quite reasonably that my hypothetical user
has a dynamically assigned IP number provided by a server on a
local area network which itself has the apc.org domain name.  In
fact, eo.wn.apc.org and its users are on a local area network based
on the store-and-forward Fidonet protocol, using an igc.apc.org
computer as their gateway to the rest of the Internet.  The gateway
has an IP number (pointed out by Brad) but none of the computers
within the eo.wn.apc.org local area network have an IP number.

We thus return full circle to a question of interest to me.  What
does it mean, really, to be "on" the Internet?  Some insist that any
computer "on" the Internet must have a unique IP number.  I certainly
accept that as a quite common definition of the Internet, though not
one that I find particularly useful in my own work.  It may be useful
in the work of others.

If we accept Vinton Cerf's definition of the Internet itself,
and insist on a focus on IP numbers to determine if someone is
"on" that Internet, then curiously we can only be sure that the
various **gateways** of the constituent networks of the Internet are
truly "on" the Internet, since they are really the only ones required
to have an IP number.  While we may be interested in who is
"on" the Internet, surely it would be absurd to focus all our
interest on gateways alone.

I can browse the information on the webservers of the Internet
without having an IP number, though I may have an IP number, and
though it is increasingly likely that I will have an IP number,
however transient, even in Africa.  Similarly, I can send and receive
email through the Internet, though neither I nor my recipient may
have an IP number, even though it is increasingly likely that I
and my recipient will have an IP number.

Curious and confusing.  Am I "on" the Internet because I have an IP
number, or am I "on" the Internet because I am using the services of
the Internet and exchanging data with the assistance of the Internet?

This is for me a matter of some importance, and also I think relevant
to this particular forum, because it seems to me that a "Northern"
bias has overwhelmed us in common definitions of the Internet even
as pronounced in Africa by Africans or by immigrants or shorter term
residents of Africa.

As being "on" the Internet has become something of a Rubicon across
which one irrevocably enters the Information Superhighway, there is
I believe some value in clarifying just what exactly it means to
traverse that ancient river.

Ultimately we are or ought to be about the exchange of information.
Hence it is my contention that one is "on" the Internet once one
takes advantage of its services.

Mine is a broad specification to be sure, but it is one that does
not minimize the excellent and worthy efforts of those who struggle
to facilitate the flow of information in infrastructurally and
financially challenging environments, particularly though not
exclusively in Africa.  And it is indeed a specification that is
consistent with the definitions of the Internet delivered to us by
some of the preeminant founders of the Internet, whatever some of
their more technocratic successors may be trying to tell us.

To my good friend Nemo, an Ethiopian studying in America (or is it
now Dr. Nemo?) who has already contributed substantially to the
development of the Internet in his home country, let me close by
adding that the above discussion is not intended to imply that direct
access to the Web and other Internet services via a computer on every
desktop in Africa is not a worthy objective.  But I think we can
agree that for some places and at some times, even in Ethiopia, a few
steps in between here and there may be required.

Cheers!
Jeff @ Washington

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