What Is the Internet? How the Internet Works, Explained

From online shopping, to learning from websites, to talking with people across the globe, we use the Internet every day. But do we really know what it is? In this article, learn what we mean when we talk about using the Internet, how the net works, where it first originated, and how you can use it with online security in mind.

What is the Internet?

The Internet is a worldwide system of computer networks that allows devices to connect through any network. With the Internet, users can communicate, learn, and share information across the world.

Though now the Internet - or net, as it's also less formally known - is a public resource, it was originally created as a research project, intended to be a network across which research computers could share data between universities.

Since then, it has grown to a worldwide network that allows users in any place to connect with one another. When we connect to the Internet, we connect to a network of networks that spans across the globe. Through our Internet service providers (ISPs), we can access this resource on almost any device at any time.

A graphic depicting the Internet

How does the Internet work?

The Internet is a complex network that functions, physically, using public telecommunication networks. It works through communication hardware like cables, routers, switches, and servers, as well as end-user devices like phones, laptops, computers, and tablets.

However, what's arguably more important to the net's function than its hardware is the set of protocols that guide communication. These guidelines are the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, known commonly as the TCP/IP protocol.

In order to fully understand how the Internet works, you must understand the way both components function in the context of the larger Internet.

Understanding TCP/IP protocol

These network protocols set rules that devices need to follow in order to properly communicate across the net. They send packets between devices and networks, format data for websites online, protect data with encryption, assist in routing, and even more. Perhaps most importantly, the protocols help translate messages between devices across various networks that make up the whole of the web.

Essentially, these protocols allow for successful and accurate communication on the net, making them the core of its functionality.

When data is sent over the Internet, it's broken into packets by Internet protocols. These packets are sent in a message using TCP/IP, which delivers the data to its intended location. Once it's received, the IP address system can then reassemble the data in the right order, which allows the receiving device to understand and process it.

Understanding Internet hardware

The Internet relies on an extensive physical hardware network in order to work quickly and efficiently. As mentioned above, a successful Internet connection needs end-user devices, like phones and computers, to initiate a connection or request. From here, information is stored in devices such as servers.

Other hardware devices, like routers and switches, are essential in facilitating a successful Internet connection. Satellites, cell towers, fiber optic cables, and similar technology assist in getting the Internet to customers through their Internet service providers.

How was the Internet developed?

The Internet began in the 1960s as a project on a much smaller scale, intended as a way for researchers at different universities to share information digitally. In 1963, Dr. J.C.R Licklider first came up with the concept of what he called an "intergalactic computer network."

He established the ARPANET, which stood for Advanced Research Projects Agency network. It sought to use computer networks for communication, using packet switching for the first time to communicate across a network. The ARPANET was essentially the predecessor to the much grander, much more complex Internet.

In the 1970s, the technology grew with the addition of TCP/IP protocols. Developed by Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, TCP/IP - which stands for Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol - set standards for data transmission across more than one network.

ARPAnet integrated TCP/IP on January 1, 1983. Because of this, that date is often known as the birth of the modern Internet. This adoption launched the creation of essentially, a network of networks, which has since become the modern net that we're familiar with today.

Uses of the net

The Internet has opened us up to a vast array of information, communication methods, and new technology. We can use it to communicate across distances and share data in a few seconds. Though it seems like the net has endless uses, these are just a few of the tasks that we use it for in day-to-day life:

  • Visiting social media sites
  • Visiting websites
  • Online banking and the use of digital wallet apps
  • Online gaming
  • Instant messaging
  • Research
  • Online shopping
  • Emails and other digital communication
  • Education through online courses or workshops

We can use this resource to connect with people across the globe, get an online degree, send money between accounts, make purchases, and a host of other activities that wouldn't be possible without this global network of computers and devices. The net is constantly changing and advancing, which opens us up to new ways to use it and explore the web.

Understanding Internet security

As essential and beneficial as the Internet is, it's not always a secure resource. Security on the Internet needs to be paramount for all users. To protect yourself online, keep these Internet security tips in mind:

  • Watch for data breaches. Though you can't always protect yourself from a data breach, you can monitor your accounts and limit who has your private information. If a company informs you they've experienced a data breach, change your passwords and try to lock your information down.
  • Protect your personal information. Don't give out your private information when it's not necessary. Additionally, keep personal details - like your SSN and birthdate - to yourself on the Internet.
  • Keep your network secure. Don't use free or public WiFi if possible, and follow the necessary steps to protect your home network.
  • Only visit HTTPS sites. HTTP sites aren't secure, so only visit HTTPS sites in your web browsers to protect your connection.
  • Use strong passwords for accounts. Using strong, secure passwords is the first step in online account protection, because other online users could potentially crack your passwords if they're weak or unprotected.
  • Download antivirus software. Antivirus or antimalware software protects your devices from any malware you may accidentally download online.

If you know how to use it safely, the net is an excellent tool for communication, education, and exploration. Make sure you're taking the proper Internet security steps to protect yourself online.

What is the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web?

Though the World Wide Web and the Internet are often confused as the same thing, they are actually two distinct - though interrelated - entities. The World Wide Web is the term for the body of web pages that you view online when you go on a computer, phone, or other device. The Internet, however, is the actual network of computers through which the web runs and can be viewed. Essentially, the net is the infrastructure and the web is the content viewable within that infrastructure.

Frequently asked questions

What is the definition of the Internet?

The Internet, by definition, is a global computer network that provides users with information and communication through a set of standard protocols.

Where did the Internet come from?

The Internet came from the ARPANET, a project funded by the US government in order to allow research centers and universities to communicate across distances.

What would happen if the Internet went out?

If the entirety of the Internet went out, it would almost certainly result in a worldwide blackout. In addition to governments and citizens all losing access to most communication methods, most power plants, farms, and other resource hubs rely on the net to coordinate exchange of electricity, water, and other vital resources. The loss of this communication and coordination would instantly halt all of these processes and leave most of the world in a state of mass confusion.

Can I get a connection without a provider?

You can get Internet without a provider using free WiFi hotspots and other public Internet sources. However, free and public net connections are not always secure; we recommend using an ISP to protect your connection, devices, and data.