The History of the Internet, Typography Division, Cont’d

As regular readers know, I have the proverbial bee in my bonnet in regard to the necessity for retaining the initial capital “I” when writing about “the Internet.”  I think it actually matters a good deal — see here and here if you’re interested in my reasons for thinking so.  But in any event, my particular obsession makes me alert to typographical variations in the word, and I recently came across a particularly nice one.

The US v Morris case from back in the late ’80s/early 90s was, for those old enough to remember, a particularly significant cultural moment in the history of the Internet.  Robert Morris, then a young grad student in computer science at Cornell, had — apparently somewhat unwittingly — unleashed the first Internet “worm,” and it put him (and “the Internet”) on the front page of newspapers all around the country.  He was ultimately convicted of violating the then-fairly-new Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (though that didn’t stop him from having a rather distinguished career in computer science, leading to his current position as Professor at MIT).

The Second Circuit upheld his CFAA conviction, in an important opinion written by Judge Jon Newman (US v. Morris, 928 F.2d 504, CA2 1991).  I had read the opinion years ago, but re-encountered it for a class several weeks ago, and noticed the really unusual way Judge Newman uses the term “Internet.”  (Newman happens to be a wonderful prose stylist, and someone who is careful about his use of words; not only did he, coincidentally, go on to become the 2d Circuit’s pre-eminent voice in copyright matters, he also seems to be the kind of person who would be interested in these typographical and semantic matters, having himself co-authored, with his father, an authoritative geneological re-construction of the entire pantheon of Greek gods and heroes.) He wrote:

These questions are raised on an appeal by Robert Tappan Morris from the May 16, 1990, judgment of the District Court for the Northern District of New York convicting him, after a jury trial, of violating 18 U.S.C. § 1030(a)(5)(A). Morris released into INTERNET, a national computer network, a computer program known as a “worm” that spread and multiplied, eventually causing computers at various educational institutions and military sites to “crash” or cease functioning. . . .

Morris designed the program to spread across a national network of computers after being inserted at one computer location connected to the network. Morris released the worm into INTERNET, which is a group of national networks that connect university, governmental, and military computers around the country. The network permits communication and transfer of information between computers on the network. . . .

Morris argues that there was insufficient evidence to convict him of “unauthorized access,” and that even if the evidence sufficed, he was entitled to have the jury instructed on his “theory of defense.” We assess the sufficiency of the evidence under the traditional standard. Morris was authorized to use computers at Cornell, Harvard, and Berkeley, all of which were on INTERNET. As a result, Morris was authorized to communicate with other computers on the network to send electronic mail (SEND MAIL), and to find out certain information about the users of other computers . . .

It’s pretty neat – putting aside the rather peculiar ALL CAPS thing, it captures a moment when intelligent and educated people were still not sure what to call this thing.  Newman seems to have opted for the “proper name” approach – “INTERNET the inter-network,” as in “Morris released the worm onto INTERNET the inter-network.”  I’m sorry this usage didn’t catch on, as it nicely preserves (in a way that “the internet” doesn’t) the one-among-many-internetworks character of the thing.