Amsterdam's internet history

This month, Amsterdam hosts MozFest, a 12-day festival for, by and about people who love the internet. World-changing ideas and technologies are presented during exhibitions, presentations and interactive sessions, where technologists, activists and academics discuss the future of a humane internet.

What makes the event perfectly suited to Amsterdam is the city's historic link to the internet in the 1980s and the thriving digital culture that followed. Read on to discover Amsterdam's internet history...

You’ve got mail

On November 17, 1988, technicians from Amsterdam’s Centrum Wiskunde en Informatica (CWI, Centre for mathematics and computer sciences) received a direct email from America. 

With this instant message, CWI became the first non-military organisation outside of America to gain access to the NSFnet network – the equivalent of Internet at the time – opening up direct communication between scientists and their counterparts across the Atlantic.

More crucially, the connection established internet access in Europe, with Amsterdam leading the way into the digital era.

But the information revolution can’t be credited to the tapping of keyboards in research labs alone. In 1994, De Digitale Stad (The Digital City, DDS) was created in Amsterdam, becoming one of the world’s first, public virtual communities that explored the possibilities of online communication.

Internet history, old computer (Tom Magliery via Flicker CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Surfing cyberspace

Founded by Marleen Stikker, then a programmer at cultural centre De Balie, DDS brought together social activists, designers, hackers, media and government organisations in an experimental online space. At the time, 300 people in the Netherlands had internet access at home. Within a few months, modems were sold out across the city and 100,000 Amsterdammers were surfing the information superhighway.

Individual users had their own profiles with email and a homepage. The city council, library, political parties and news organisations, established their very first webpages and channels of communication with residents.

"I was very happy that we used the metaphor for the city," 'mayor' Stikker told I amsterdam. "It enabled us to do a lot of different things at the same time. It was a full exploration of all the possibilities all around the idea of user generated content: homepages, avatars, collaborative creation, chat, discussions, thematic ‘squares’ on all possible topics, sports, politics, culture and social movements. There was also a ‘Memento Mori Square’ to remember people. DDS was an open place where people could create and discuss anything."

Not only did the initiative promote the use of the internet by private individuals, it allowed the opportunity for people without home computers, too. "We opened it up to people who didn't have any background in ICT," Stikker said. "We also organised physical access points so people who didn't have access at home could also participate."

Marleen Stikker, founder of De Digitale Stad and director of Waag Amsterdam (via Waag)

Now celebrated as an internet pioneer, Stikker continues to carry the torch for an open and inclusive internet as founder and director of Amsterdam’s Waag, a Future Lab developing technology for social change, a professor of practice at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) and author of The internet is broken. But we can fix it.

Initially a ten-week trial funded by the city council, DDS evolved into a foundation, operating until 2001. Over those same years, the internet built by public institutions switched to corporate control, paving the way for a global mass medium without conditions – there would be no rules governing how commercial providers ran their infrastructure or government oversight of the internet backbones.

Navigating a digital society

Almost 30 years later, 'digital city' has taken on new meaning. We no longer log on to the internet – it surrounds us, and in Amsterdam, open source projects like City Data that share statistics on traffic, the environment, healthcare and more, fuel digital innovation to improve services and citizen support.

The country’s digital infrastructure and access makes it possible. The AMS-IX, one of the most important internet exchange points in the world, in particular has helped solidify Amsterdam’s reputation as a digital hub. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth were invented in the country, and digital access and literacy has grown significantly with 99% of households connected to broadband.

Of course, the fact we are all so connected comes with its own problems: privacy, surveillance and digital rights.

"We're in a dangerous position about power and ownership of the internet," Stikker said, admitting we need to remain vigilant, even as we are increasingly aware of the importance of data protection.

"The internet began as a commons, a shared public. Unfortunately the 90s was the decade that all public services became privatised, just at the moment that we had to secure the digital public sphere. Only now, after three decades of extreme privatisation of the internet, we come back to the idea that we need public values."

Human connection

Stikker cites the Dutch CoronaMelder contact tracing app, developed last year. "I do not think the type of apps developed by governments are the ones we actually need, but the Dutch version has demonstrated that you do not have to give up your privacy," she said.

"A coalition of civic organisations pushed for open source and privacy-by-design. And that is what happened. We can build technology on the basis of privacy-by-design. The danger now is some governments do not learn from this and make decisions against these principles. Once you’re there, it's really difficult to go back."

Person using a mobile phone to take a picture Amsterdam (via Unsplash)

Amsterdam’s pioneering role in providing a free and open internet continues to draw advocates for a return to an internet based on public values. A coalition of Waag, the city of Amsterdam and other public organisations want to rebuild a safe digital city based on public values in the next four years as part of Amsterdam 750 celebrations. It’s part of a broader movement for a European Digital Public Space.

And events like Mozfest, a tech festival for the open internet movement – taking place online and in Amsterdam this month – is an example of global efforts by activists and technologists to reimagine a more humane online world.

At a city level, Amsterdam’s public and private institutions are spearheading a more human-centred approach to technology, such as ethical AI, aiming to make sure digitalisation truly improves peoples’ lives.

Stikker said: "I really believe it's about collaboration. I do believe here in Amsterdam we have a lot of knowledge, and part of it is there are good connections between different actors; between civic society, artists and designers, scientists, governments and social entrepreneurs. That makes it special and this is something that has built up over the years."

Read more news from around Amsterdam.