Happy birthday, Google: this week in tech, 20 years ago


One of 1998’s biggest tech stories was the massive antitrust lawsuit against Microsoft. It’s Monopoly Week on The Verge, so I wrote a bit about that lawsuit’s place in the ‘90s legal landscape. I also reviewed Antitrust, the 2001 thriller about a fictionalized Microsoft that murders software developers to steal their code.

But today’s big news involves another incredibly important, potentially monopolistic tech company: Google, which was founded on September 4th, 1998. To celebrate, you can check out some “stickers” from one of Google’s earliest iterations. Or you can read on for news about celebrity chat rooms, flame mail, and a North Korean satellite.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the Google search engine (originally called “BackRub) at Stanford in 1996. And their company was incorporated on September 4th in 1998, making it 20 years old this week. We’ve put together a timeline of Google’s impressive and tumultuous life.


Third-party Google “sticker,” February 1999

But at first, the company didn’t get much attention — after all, it was just one of many search engines and web portals. (The week Google launched, PC Magazine ran a cover story on the internet’s “hottest portals,” featuring everything from Infoseek to AOL.com — but no Google.) Even Stanford Daily waited until January of 1999 to cover the company, which Brin and Page had proclaimed “Stanford’s next big internet startup.” Within a few months, though, people were praising Google’s “remarkably smart” results, and today, most of its competitors are all but forgotten. RIP, AltaVista.

While it can be difficult to imagine now, there was a time when we wished celebrities would talk more on the internet. Web portals recognized that desire, until as the Independent claimed on September 7th, 1998, “it seems you can’t log on these days without bumping into a celebrity in a chat room.”

If you can get past the George Michael jokes at the start, you’ll find a rundown of the best “celebweb” offerings. The PC Magazine story above says that “no other portal books as many A-list celebrities as AOL,” but the Independent favors MSN UK, whose events included a live chat session around the launch of The X-Files’ first film in 1998.

Someone appears to have archived the X-Files chat session logs, which feature Gillian Anderson, David Duchovny, and Chris Carter hanging out with MSN users. Fans ask a lot of fairly good questions — but some of them are also clearly just shipping Mulder and Scully really hard.

This week also reminded people how horrifying the internet could be, though. On September 3rd, news outlets reported a raid on an online child pornography ring called the “Wonderland Club,” with over 100 arrests across a dozen countries. The massive bust, dubbed Operation Cathedral, took two years to coordinate. Law enforcement ultimately seized over 750,000 pictures of over 1,200 children. Several suspects were later convicted, although in the UK, they received sentences short enough that critics called them a “joke.”

The operation was unprecedented in its size, but these busts soon became an established element of law enforcement. Two years after the original arrests, a longform Newsweek article traced the ways that computers and the internet made distributing child pornography easier — but how it also gave sleuths more ways to hunt the perpetrators down.

Meanwhile, tensions over North Korea were high, as the world wondered whether the country had launched its first satellite into space. On August 31st, North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile over Japan for reasons unknown. Officials speculated that the move was a threat or a display of firepower. A few days later, North Korea’s state news agency declared that the missile was actually a rocket carrying a satellite, which had been launched to promote “scientific research for peaceful use of outer space” — and to broadcast patriotic hymns.

One US official initially said the launch was “possible.” But after another week, the State Department announced that it believed the attempt had failed, and it took 14 more years for North Korea to actually put a satellite into orbit.

Silicon Valley, however, was embroiled in a much pettier conflict: an angry message board scandal. Microsoft was in the middle of compiling evidence to defend itself from antitrust claims, and it wanted to prove that competitor Netscape had run itself into the ground, rather than being crushed by Microsoft. To do so, it issued subpoenas for two internal Netscape forums called “Bad Attitude” and “Really Bad Attitude.”

Both were dedicated to venting internal complaints, but “Really Bad Attitude” was reserved for the most vituperative “flame mail” — “you could be on RBA only if you first flamed so hard that bile flowed from your eye sockets,” said its creator. The messages’ contents eventually came out, but although some made Netscape look bad — calling the company a “faceless corporation” and its new employees “pusillanimous latecomers” — Microsoft still lost its case.

On September 7th, The New York Times drew a larger trend out of this subpoena, writing about tech companies that “permit, even encourage, employees to vent frustrations, passions, hopes and suggestions” in message boards. These internal communications are still common. But as Silicon Valley has become more overtly political, they’ve caused significant embarrassment and fueled legal complaints, including an extended fight over diversity at Google. So let’s savor the moment when a nasty flaming just involved saying your company’s product was “faster than a dog with no legs. If the dog’s up to its waist in treacle. And dead.”

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