The Internet is a global network of computers that communicate with each other. This exchange happens through a set of rules called protocols. Since Internet use became widespread in the 1990s, the system has affected most aspects of life. It has had both productive and destructive effects. The Internet has changed the way Canadians learn and work, buy products and services, communicate and consume entertainment. Most people think of the Internet as the World Wide Web. However, it takes a number of different forms, including networked physical objects called the Internet of Things.
Click here for definitions of key terms used in this article.
What Is the Internet?
The Internet is a network of computers, connected so that information can travel between them. These computers include desktops, laptops, tablets, phones and video-game consoles. The most popular form of the Internet is the World Wide Web, viewed in a web browser, which is itself an application. Applications (“apps”) are software that can access the Internet for specific functions. For example, Instagram is an app designed for images and video. Like some other apps, it can also be used via a web browser. Once installed, some apps do not necessarily need to access the Internet to function (e.g., text editors, book readers and calculators).
When a computer requests content through a web browser or app, it sends this command to a modem. The modem routes the request to an Internet service provider’s server. Within milliseconds, the server communicates with other servers. This exchange happens through a complex network of cables and fibre optics (threads of glass or plastic that carry information as light signals). The requested content is broken into small “packets” and sent back to the user’s device. There, it loads as a web page, a social media post or some other kind of content.
When connected to a cellular network, a phone will instead send the request to a nearby cellular tower, which connects to the server. Both cellular and modem connections sometimes send requests via satellite, as opposed to the ground network.
The Internet isn’t just on devices with screens. “Smart” devices and appliances can connect, exchange data and work together. This Internet of Things (IoT) can connect to anything from doorbells to cars. (See also Computers and Canadian Society.)
History of the Internet in Canada
The United States Department of Defense began networking computers in 1969. Over time, it allowed scientists and universities to connect to this network, called ARPANET. In 1971, the Science Council of Canada proposed a similar network that would not rely on the US system. However, the federal government did not approve this proposal. Canadian defence computers connected to the American system in 1983.
The Canadian government developed a computer network called Telidon in the 1970s. Telidon trials became available to the public in 1979. The network failed to catch on, however, and funding for Telidon stopped several years later.
Universities were early to connect to the Internet. McGill student Alan Emtage created the first search engine, Archie, in 1989. Using keywords for easy searching, Archie indexed files on Internet servers used to share files.
The first World Wide Web browser appeared in 1990. The Web’s popularity and user base grew in the mid-1990s. This growth owed, in particular, to the development of graphical browsers like Mosaic and Netscape. Traditional retailers like Zellers and Sears created online stores, some colleges offered online courses, and CBC Radio began offering downloads of radio shows. In 1996, book dealer Cathy Waters of Victoria, British Columbia, launched a website to find obscure titles for her clients. Called Advanced Book Exchange, the service survived the burst of the tech bubble in 2000. It is now owned by US firm Amazon as AbeBooks.
From the beginning of the World Wide Web, users have been able to upload content as web pages or complete websites. In the early 2000s, new technology made it easier for users to add content, even to sites they didn’t own. Then known as “Web 2.0,” these websites included social media networks, blogs, wikis and content-sharing sites like Flickr (an image-hosting service founded in Vancouver).
All websites are coded in Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Various other programming languages allow for dynamic (changing or interactive) elements on websites. One popular example is Java, released in 1995, created by Calgary-born James Gosling. Another language is PHP, created by University of Waterloo-educated Rasmus Lerdorf. As of 2020, an estimated 78.9 per cent of websites use PHP.
Growth of the Internet in Canada
Growth of the Internet is exponential and hard to predict.
Between 1983 and 2019, bandwidth usage grew 50 per cent per year, on average. Early streaming video, in the mid- to late 1990s, was pixelated and required special software. By the end of 1999, Canadian website iCraveTV was offering illegal, low-resolution livestreams of television stations. (See iCraveTV Controversy.) Streaming video is now the norm, with 67 per cent of Canadians subscribed to a service like Netflix by 2019. That year, video platforms accounted for 60.6 per cent of all Internet traffic.
Many websites created in Canada have.ca domain names. The number of these web addresses surpassed 3 million in December 2020.
Opportunities and Challenges
The Internet has made information more accessible than ever before. However, it has not benefitted all Canadians equally, and its advantages come with certain risks. (See also Computers and Canadian Society.)
There are disparities in access to the Internet, a “digital divide.” Statistics Canada found in 2018 that 1.2 per cent of households with children did not have Internet. Among families with the lowest incomes, this figure grew to 4.2 per cent. Canadian mobile service providers charge some of the highest prices for service in the world. Non-profit Internet service providers in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax have offered low-cost alternatives since the early 1990s.
Private-sector Internet service providers have avoided building infrastructure in Canada’s rural and remote areas. As a result, access in these areas can be more expensive and slower than in urban areas. Various programs are working to bridge this divide. A public-private partnership in New Brunswick plans to connect 73,000 households with high-speed fibre optic or satellite Internet by 2024. The federal government’s Universal Broadband Fund aims for 98 per cent of the country to have access by 2026 and 100 per cent by 2030.
Data and Privacy
Artificial intelligence (AI) offers new tools and insights based on large amounts of information (“big data”). However, AI also presents various risks. These include the potential for data used by AI algorithms to reflect human biases. For example, studies of several facial-recognition programs used in policing show that this software makes the most errors when reading images of people of colour.
Concerns about privacy also surround the Internet. Social media networks and other sites require users to consent to the collection of their personal information. (However, this is often not clear to the user.) Websites use this data to target ads to individuals.
The digital (or Internet) economy accounted for 5.5 per cent of Canada’s economy in 2017. Businesses have tapped into new potential by connecting directly with their customers over the Internet. In doing so, many have bypassed the physical stores and services that once acted as middlemen. Some occupations, such as traditional bookselling, have suffered in this shift. The digital economy has also created unstable “gig” jobs (e.g., driving for ridesharing apps) that pay people per task instead of offering fixed salaries with benefits.
Internet devices have a significant impact on the climate. Powering these devices and cooling the world’s data centres require massive amounts of energy. This demand puts a strain on renewable energy sources and contributes to emissions from fossil fuels. (See Climate Change.)
Individuals and groups have used the Internet to amplify false information. The spread of everything from simple mistakes to deliberate campaigns designed to mislead people can deeply impact society. (See Misinformation in Canada; Disinformation in Canada.)
Social networks help people to keep in touch, reconnect and meet others. There are online meeting places for even the narrowest of interests, where members can discuss and debate. However, the longer that users stay on a social media platform, the more advertising revenue the service makes. The pursuit of “likes,” the “infinite scroll,” and customized content (geared to the individual) can addict users. Some people become isolated through social media, interacting less in person. Users often present idealized images of their lives, distorting others’ expectations of reality.