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The Internet or the Web? Getting the Terms Right

Updated on June 20, 2021
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Carlo is an experienced IT expert with more than 20 years of experience in the field. He is certified by Microsoft and CompTIA.

The Internet
The Internet | Source

The Internet and the Web. Those two seemingly synonymous terms have been used interchangeably for years now. However, they both refer to two different things that, although very closely related, have different histories and purposes.

Several months ago, a fellow Hubber (MarleneB) said in response to a question here in HubPages that "The world wide web is where you go. The internet is how you get there". This is a very simple yet accurate analogy on the difference of these two terms. In other words, the World Wide Web (or simply the Web) refers to the web pages and web sites we visit every day (like HubPages), while the Internet refers to the complex infrastructure of cables, hardware, and computers that allows us to visit those web sites. But let’s take a look at each of these terms more closely.

Inventors of the ARPANET: Jon Postel, Steve Crocker, and Vinton Cerf posed for a 1994 Newsweek article on the 25th Anniversary of the ARPANET
Inventors of the ARPANET: Jon Postel, Steve Crocker, and Vinton Cerf posed for a 1994 Newsweek article on the 25th Anniversary of the ARPANET | Source

The Internet

The Internet refers to a global or international network of computers connected all around the world. It surged during the middle of the 20th Century as a collaborative project between several military, scientific, and government organizations from different countries that developed early networks like Cyclades, RAND, and ARPANET. The latter is perhaps the most known and the most important.

ARPANET was a network devised by ARPA (Advanced Research Project Agency), an agency from the Department of Defense of the United States, created with the intention of gaining technological advantage over the Soviet Union in the middle of the Cold War.

ARPANET was developed by ARPA in the late 60’s with the goal of creating a decentralized network that would allow permanent communication even after a possible nuclear attack. With the rising threat of a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, scientists at ARPA began developing a network by establishing four nodes or stations in four universities in the West Coast:

  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • Stanford Research Institute
  • University of Santa Barbara, California
  • University of Utah

ARPANET in 1970
ARPANET in 1970 | Source

Their project would consist in connecting these four remote nodes. Up to this point in history, computer networks already existed. However, they were confined to sole buildings and structures, not to remote connections from one city to the other. In December 1969, ARPA completed the first full connection between the four nodes of the ARPANET, thus giving birth to what would later become the Internet.

With time, and the surging of groundbreaking technologies like packet switching and TCP/IP, the ARPANET continued to grow and expand beyond the boundaries of what ARPA had defined. Other organizations and institutions began to adopt the same technologies to develop their own networks. These networks started connecting with each other and what was originally devised as a government project became a worldwide network of computers with no defined center.

What do I need to have Internet access?

  1. A computer or device with the appropriate equipment. Most devices nowadays already come with some kind of network adapter that allows it to connect to any network, including the Internet.
  2. Be in a place where there's an agreement with an ISP (Internet Service Provider), which are the companies that regulate and offer Internet access. This can be from your house, school, or job. Some public places also offer free Internet access.

During the 1980’s, and with the growth of this network towards a more business-oriented scope, ARPA handed their part of the network to private telecommunication companies that were already handling similar networks. But what we know now as the Internet was already spread throughout the world.

Telecommunication companies are the ones that maintain and administer the physical access to the Internet. This allows them to give the public access to their lines and the Internet for a monthly or yearly fee. These companies are called ISP (Internet Service Providers).

Some of the basic services the Internet offers are:

  • Communication - via e-mail, chats, instant messages, social networking.
  • File transfer - via e-mail attachments, downloads and uploads.
  • Media streaming - transmission of TV shows, films, radio shows, and other media.
  • And of course, the World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (or WWW)
The World Wide Web (or WWW) | Source

The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (or just The Web) is a collection of web pages and web sites with all kinds of information and purposes. These web pages and sites are stored in millions of servers around the world that can be accessed by the general public through the Internet. The idea behind the Web was devised by British scientist Tim Berners-Lee. He began developing the concept of the Web back in 1989 and, together with Belgian Robert Cailliau, presented the first website in 1991.

To achieve this, Berners-Lee designed a language that would allow the websites to be interconnected to each other via hyperlinks. This language called HTML (HyperText Markup Language) allowed people to easily navigate from one page to another just by clicking on a word or picture.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web
Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web | Source

What do I need to navigate the Web?

  1. A computer or device with Internet access (see above)
  2. A web browser installed in your device. This is the software that you use to navigate and view the web pages. Popular examples are: Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Mozilla Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Apple Safari.

The most popular web browsers
The most popular web browsers | Source

Since Berners-Lee's idea was to come up with an easy way to spread knowledge through the Internet, he chose not to profit from his idea. He feared that if he were to patent his invention, the use of the Web would become a luxury instead of the accessible tool he wanted it to be. Part of his invention also included the first web browser, which is the software we use to navigate through the web. It was initially called WorldWideWeb, but was later renamed Nexus to avoid confusion with the name of the Web itself.

Berners-Lee said in an interview once that:

"Creating the web was really an act of desperation ... Most of the technology involved in the web, like the hypertext, like the Internet, multifont text objects, had all been designed already. I just had to put them together."

Nowadays, the Web is our destination for most of the things we do on the Internet. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and HubPages of course, are all examples of popular websites we visit frequently. All of them are part of the World Wide Web, and we have access to them through the Internet.

Online chatting through the Internet
Online chatting through the Internet | Source

Can I use the Internet without using the Web?

Of course. Although the Web is maybe the most used service of the Internet, it is not the only one. Think of this. When you turn on your computer, it usually connects automatically to the Internet, even BEFORE you have opened any website.

Some things that we can use the Internet for without navigating the Web are:

  • Using instant messaging software like Skype to communicate with someone.
  • Playing an online game in your computer or video game console with online friends.
  • Some software like Microsoft Office access the Web to download templates and pictures.

The Internet and the Web
The Internet and the Web

To sum it up

The confusion between the terms Internet and World Wide Web is not new. It is also very common. So if you've mixed up the terms before, don't feel bad because you're not the only one. Besides, most people will know what you're talking about. However, it is always good to have an opportunity to learn a bit more about both technologies and get the terms right.

Another analogy to better understand the difference between both terms would be to compare it with the traditional telephone service. We can say that the Web is equivalent to the different houses, stores, businesses, and restaurant you call daily, while the Internet is equivalent to the telephones, phone lines, and posts that allow you to make the calls.

So next time someone asks you where you learned about both terms, tell them you read it on a Website on the Internet.

History of the Internet, by Melih Bilgil

The World Wide Web in Plain English, by Common Craft


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