For the patrons of Internet Freeworld, a typical coffeeshop in the heart of Amsterdam, there is little to indicate the city played as advanced a role in delivering computer bytes as it did decriminalising soft drugs.

Just a few miles from the tapping keyboards and pungent smell of marijuana, lies an unprepossessing science park where 20 years ago the Netherlands became the first country outside the US to gain a non-military link to what became the internet.

It led to Amsterdam’s growth as a major hub for global internet traffic and, like much internet history, only happened because of the enthusiasm of a handful of technicians.

Piet Beertema, a now retired systems manager who spent most of his career at the Mathematical Centre in the science park, played a major role in campaigning to join Arpanet , the predecessor of the global internet.

“I had the big hope that one day we’d be connected to the internet, to the Arpanet, but it was daydreaming,” Mr Beertema said. “The whole idea that they would let people on their network in Europe, which was so close to the Russians…It could have taken 10 years.”

The problem with Arpanet was that it had been conceived by the United States ‘ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) – an outfit that itself was founded at the height of the Cold War as a reaction to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite.

European computer centres could already interact with US computers but they did so using a basic “store-and-forward” system for sharing electronic newsletters and email over the Usenet network.

The perceived danger of Usenet was that information would be transmitted more widely than intended. “But if we talk about internet, the problem gets worse because [users] can login and they can transfer files directly from point to point,” Mr Beertema said.

He had already tested early online attitudes with a 1984 April Fool’s hoax. A fake message signed by Konstantin Chernenko, the former Soviet General Secretary announcing that the USSR had joined the net prompted as much outrage as amusement.

Nevertheless, after several years of contact-building and lobbying Darpa counterparts, on November 17, 1988 the Mathematical Centre joined a civilian extension of Arpanet.

“Someone, somewhere in the US added one line to a configuration file, and that was it,” Mr Beertema said. “That was the start of the internet.”

It would be another year before Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web. But for the researchers at the Mathematical Centre the immediate benefit was near-instant messaging with counterparts at Berkeley rather than the 10-30 minute delays to deliver a message over the older system.

Today buildings in the science park still house network switches belonging to AMS-IX, the world’s largest internet exchange.

Although internet exchanges are less critical than their telephonic counterparts, because traffic can take multiple alternate routes, they help cut the cost of networking because participants make “peering” agreements to carry each others’ data without charge.

An early decision by KPN, the Dutch telecoms incumbent, to accept peering requests and AMS-IX’s not-for-profit model helped fuel its rapid growth.

“Parties like France Telecom and Deutsche Telekom did not fear that they were putting their core equipment in a for-profit environment where they might be squeezed out or [the exchange] sold off to someone else,” Job Witteman, AMS-IX’s chief executive, said.

”We became the international place that everybody saw as the Switzerland of the internet.”

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