Before Libraries were a place for free Internet access the New York Public Library was having problems with homeless overstayers. How did New Zealand get them kicked to the curb?
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Nearly a decade before ‘free Internet access’ offers bubbled the ISP-wars to new heights of unsustainability, free Internet was already available to Wellingtonians – if only they knew what the Internet was.
Richard Naylor, Wellington City Council's IT Manager, spent the latter half of the 80s tying the organisation's many diverse businesses (from a bus company to an abattoir) together using a variety of network technologies. At first, this was focused on internal tasks designed to make the council operate more efficiently, but over time, the automation aimed at saving ratepayers and businesses time on paperwork and in queues.
By 1991, he was in a position to convince WCC to launch CityNet, offering free dial-up access to locals who could connect and browse online council information and access some Internet services.
Overseas, 1991 was the year that Tim Berners-Lee's 1989 vision of ‘The Mesh’ came to reality in the shape of the ‘World Wide Web’, the first Web server and page being deployed by his employer CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). With a way of creating rich-ish content pages that linked to others, the Web now faced its first non-technical hurdle – a need for quality content to compel people to actually use it.
“The WWW - less exciting than watching coffee brew.”At the time, the Web couldn’t even compete with the thrill of watching coffee brew via the world's first Internet-connected (but non-WWW) camera at the University of Cambridge in the UK. Coffee-starved geeks, tired of arriving at the canteen to discover an empty coffee pot, hooked up a camera so they could remotely see the pot’s level and avoid wasted trips. Over the next few years, millions of others stared at the same coffee pot but without this sad excuse.
Unlike free ISPs years later, Naylor's CityNet had no hope of making money through interconnection fee arbitrage or advertising. Luckily, the limited nature of the text-based interface to the Internet, kept the appeal relatively limited. Individuals could email on the off chance that they knew someone else with an email address – which was unlikely with an estimated 1193 New Zealanders online. Or they could access council information – seemingly underwhelming by today's standards, but nonetheless a world first.
Naylor heard that as far afield as New York, staff at the public library (which had a problem with vagrants), were cutting and pasting Wellington's bylaws on vagrancy to their own statutes. Originally posted to a Gopher server (a text-based information repository that allowed pre-WWW navigation of content) to help out one local administrator, these bylaws were soon being accessed and repurposed by other councils around New Zealand and even internationally.
The early 90s were not noted for government financial support for the Internet, despite repeated calls for intervention. Four years later, Maurice Williamson was featured in Wired magazine bragging about the government's ‘hands off’ approach to telecommunications – ignoring the opinion of many that some strong hands were exactly what was needed.
Wellington City Council IT manager Richard Naylor convinces it to launch Citynet. Providing free dial-up access to council information, there’s only one other similar service outside the US. Prior to this, Network Wizards says that only 1193 New Zealanders are connected to the Internet.
But that didn't stop early pioneers within central government from delivering some world-firsts on a shoestring. A couple of years after Naylor got WCC online, Colin Jackson was tapped to provide research and advice to our Internet-mad minister and didn't have to be asked twice to set up the first government Web server at www.govt.nz in 1994.
Operating under an ‘ask forgiveness not permission’ motto, the Web server was set up within the Ministry of Commerce and presented over wine and cheese to other departments as the official online destination for information on the New Zealand government. It passed scrutiny and New Zealand became probably the second country behind the USA to have an official government presence online.
Once it was up and running, like Naylor, Jackson then went on the hunt for good content asking government departments for funds to support the project - or at least for content that the public might appreciate. An early win was a modern translation of the Treaty of Waitangi by Sir Hugh Kauwharu, supplied on the proviso that all footnotes were also included. If there was one thing the barren Internet had at the time, it was room for content.
Over the next decades a movement to free up both government and, in some cases commercial, content for use by the public would grow. At first content was released with ad hoc disclaimers that it was "free" to use but over time formal ways of designating content as available for re-use were developed. One of these is the Creative Commons license that Down to the Wire is published under. You're free to repurpose the text and videos from this site to use in your own projects - so go ahead!
Tomorrow: Eventually the word about this Internet thing started to spread and demand for access increased. But why was the talk of the Internet about, “the poison from New Zealand”.