That time we broke the internet back in 1994

When I was college a long time ago, we once broke the internet and made headlines worldwide for a day. I was a member of the computer club of the Technical University of Eindhoven, The Netherlands called Stack. It still exists in some form today.

At the club, we ran a multitude of servers. These servers were mostly hand-me-downs from the university or private donations. They all ran some form of Unix like Linux, *BSD and SunOS. People were using them for all kinds of experiments. From IRC bots to FTP sites and mirrors. I remember that we had login limits and sometimes you didn’t even get to log in to a server because of capacity problems. We didn’t have the unlimited computing power we have to our disposal today.

One day, we thought it was fun to create an FTP site populated with all the images coming from Usenet to make them more easy to browse through. Usenet was a distributed network of discussion groups. People chatted about everything under the sun and that included sharing of photos. Not surprising, a significant portion of those photos was the NSFW kind.  You can guess where this heading right?

So, somehow, sometime, the availability of this FTP site became known in the US. It went “viral” before it was even a term. Overnight, the traffic to the US exploded. It completely overloaded the transatlantic internet cable from NL to the US which was at the time only one of two. The other one was in France. Eventually, that one got clogged as well and the internet came to a complete standstill.

The site was running under the internet domain umbrella of the university and using an IP address they owned. The university got contacted and they were not amused, to say the least. The next day, the press got wind of it and a major newspaper in NL ran a frontpage headline like “Eindhoven university going into porn business”. That rattled a few cages.

It was decided there and then that the site should be taken offline and the computer club would get their own internet domain so they wouldn’t be automatically associated with the university.

You know what was the funniest thing? The server never crashed. It kept humming along. The network capacity constraints at the time and some careful tweaking of the FTP server parameters kept it humming along just fine.

For us, we never regarded the impact of the internet in the same way. I realized that it would be big and transformational.