The University has helped to shape the wired world in ways both subtle and profound. Dr Victoria Nash of the Oxford Internet Institute explores.

What Oxford has done for the internet

By Victoria Nash

The internet is 45 years old, yet life without it has become all but unthinkable. There’s no single individual commonly credited with its invention, though there are undoubtedly key figures: JCR Licklider, the research scientist at the US Department of Defense whose vision of a worldwide computer network underpinned the internet’s precursor, the Arpanet; Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf who developed the TCP/IP protocols, the rules that allow different devices to communicate over the internet; or perhaps most obviously, Oxford’s own Sir Tim Berners-Lee (pictured above), founding father of the World Wide Web and affectionately known as ‘TBL’.

Fittingly for a technology that is reliant upon packets of information split up and distributed over multiple networks of networks, the internet’s inception and development has also been remarkably distributed, layered and complex. And many of Oxford’s faculty, staff and students have contributed to its development, whether technically, practically or politically.

The internet’s underlying architecture is nothing short of miraculous. Multiple independent standards bodies formulate, discuss, and recommend the technical rules which ensure our devices continue to talk to each other. One of the most significant of these is the IETF, the Internet Engineering Task Force. This international, volunteer-run organisation has been responsible for many of the standards we take for granted today — and is remarkable not least for its willingness to use humming as a means of determining ‘rough consensus’ at meetings. Within this vital group, two Oxford academics have played their part. Alissa Cooper, a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco, who recently received her DPhil from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII), is a member of the IETF’s core Steering Group, and is area director for its Real-Time Applications and Infrastructure group, whilst Graham Klyne (Oxford e-Research Centre) has co-authored at least 20 suggested standards, dating back to 1999.

In 1994 Sir Tim Berners-Lee himself created another important standards body, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), to build consensus around how web technologies develop. This body has been particularly influential in the development of standards for the ‘semantic web’ which allows data to be categorised then effortlessly linked and shared across organisations and communities. In this context Ian Horrocks, Professor of Computer Science at Oxford, made a significant contribution, playing a central role in the development of three web ontology languages during his time at the University of Manchester. These languages order data for the semantic web, enabling the representation of knowledge about things and the relationships between them so that information can be processed and interpreted by computers.

While technical innovation is obviously crucial, the development of the internet has been shaped as much by its users as by network engineers. As Professor Jonathan Zittrain put it in a book written at the OII, one of the internet’s most extraordinary properties is its ‘generativity’ — its ‘capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences’. Think about Google or Facebook: developed in universities by smart college kids, both have had a huge impact on the way we use the internet. In the Oxford context, two of our most notable developments have been the harnessing of crowd-sourced wisdom through the Galaxy Zoo astronomy project, and the expansion of access to knowledge through the Bodleian’s Google Books partnership.

Galaxy Zoo was started by Dr Chris Lintott and colleagues in the University’s Physics Department, and sought volunteers to help classify digital images of galaxies according to their shape. It has rapidly become one of the most successful citizen science projects, spawning the Zooniverse citizen science platform, which brings together a wealth of possibilities for individuals to contribute to research in astrophysics, marine biology, climate science and even the history of the First World War. The latter echoes another very early crowd-sourcing project on the Great War Archive started by Dr Stuart Lee, Oxford’s Reader in E-Learning and Digital Libraries, currently second-in-command at the University’s IT Services.

The Oxford Google Books project is one of five initial partnerships that Google established with major research universities to fully digitise out-of-copyright collections and to offer snippets of copyrighted material. Oxford is the only partner outside the US and, thanks to the extraordinary depth and richness of the Bodleian’s historic collection, the project has granted public access to literary and scientific treasures on an unprecedented scale. Other University staff work with the international Text-Coding Initiative to provide digital, linkable facsimiles of books such as the Bodleian’s first folio of plays.

Since its inception in 2001, the OII has sought to inform internet policy and practice, and many of our faculty regularly provide expert advice and comment. Both Professors Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Luciano Floridi have been influential in recent debates about the right to be forgotten, with the latter now sitting on Google’s Advisory Council on the Right to be Forgotten. Professor Helen Margetts sits on the UK’s Digital Advisory Service, challenging government to provide better services for its users, while Professor Ian Brown has shaped debates about cyber-security and privacy issues both within the UK and internationally for over a decade.

In an academic environment as intellectually adventurous as ours, there will be many more who have already made similar contributions, while our excellent degree programmes mean that the next ‘TBL’ may emerge from the OII, the Department of Computer Science, or (like Mark Zuckerberg), the Department of Psychology. Meanwhile, for those who would like to see the man in the flesh, Sir Tim Berners-Lee will be receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the OII Internet and Society Awards on 7 November. Tickets are available from: http://awards.oii.ox.ac.uk/

Images of Tim Berners-Lee by Seiiti Arata via Flickr under Creative Commons licence.