Internet Access Protocols: How Does the Internet Work?

The Internet consists of a number of individual computers, each of which are connected to a single network. Access protocols, in turn, govern these connections. Internet access protocols are essentially rules that facilitate communication between individual machines (computers) and the Internet. Programs, such as web browsers and search engines, use Internet access protocols to search for and retrieve desired information. However, no one piece of software has access to every file that's housed on the Internet; thus, it's necessary to build up an arsenal of web sites, subject directories, search engines, and Usenet and email groups for your research needs.

Some of the more customary protocols include HTTP ("The Web"), TELNET, FTP, Usenet, and email.

1. The World Wide Web

The World Wide Web (WWW) is oftentimes confused with "The Internet." This is understandable, since the WWW represents a large portion of what's available on the Internet. However, the WWW is only one of many Internet access protocols.

The access protocol that forms the basis for the WWW is the HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP. HTTP is a distinct protocol that also offers access to other protocols, including TELNET, FTP, and Usenet and email groups. This is one reason for its popularity - users can search and retrieve information from a variety of protocols without needing to learn and connect to each one. The Web is also adept at handling multimedia files and advanced programming languages, and is relatively simple, boasting an easy-to-use interface. When conducting online research, you'll probably turn to the WWW 99% of the time.

The Web's Internet access protocol is called HTTP because the WWW uses hypertext to retrieve information. Hypertext is a means of linking documents together via words (or graphics) called links. Each time the user clicks on a link, he's directed to another document, one specified by the link's creator. When you visit a web site, you use links to navigate from page to page within the site. Most sites contain links to other web sites as well.

In order to view a web site, you need to use a piece of software called a web browser. Many browsers employ plug-ins so that they may display multimedia materials such as images or audio/video files. Even if you're not sure what a web browser is, chances are that you've used several. Popular browsers include Internet Explorer and Mozilla.


Another Internet access protocol you might encounter is the TELNET protocol. Machines that are connected to the Internet sometimes use this program to enable other computers to connect to their databases, catalogs, and chat services. For instance, I made frequent use of TELNET when taking an online distance learning course from the University of New Mexico a few years ago. In lieu of regular class meetings, we were required to log onto TELNET once a week and discuss the week's readings and homework assignments with our virtual classmates. Some university libraries use TELNET, though many have moved their online catalogs to the Web.

In order to launch a TELNET session, you first need to install the software on your computer and then find a compatible web browser. You probably will not work with TELNET very often - and in the instances you do, it will most likely be at your library, which will already have TELNET installed on its machines. So, in other words, there's no reason to rush to your computer and install TELNET ASAP!

3. FTP

File Transfer Protocol, or FTP, is exactly what it sounds like - an Internet protocol for transferring files between machines. Users can choose to share files with specific individuals; this is common in the workplace, where coworkers may use FTP to share documents, videos, and other resources with one another. Users may also make their files available for anyone to download. Anonymous FTP allows users to download files from host computers onto their own machines; KaZaA, BearShare, and LimeWire are some popular examples.

FTP search engines permit you to search the Web for files that can be downloaded using the FTP program.

Some (free!) file search engines include:

FileSearching -
FileWatcher -
Ftp search engines -
FTPSearch -

While all of the above engines are "general" file search engines, you can also use file search engines that will specifically search for images, audio files, video files, and new web pages. Many of the popular search engines, such as Google and AltaVista, have options to search just for multimedia files, too.

4. Usenet and email discussion groups

Usenet is a system that uses Network News Transfer Protocol, or NNTP. Usenet groups, commonly referred to as newsgroups, are discussion groups devoted to a specific topic. With thousands of newsgroups available, every topic from environmental conservation to Taco Bell is covered.

Email groups are another form of discussion groups. Instead of NNTP, they use an email protocol called Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP. Like newsgroups, email groups are also centered around certain subjects. The main difference between the two is that email discussion groups deliver the messages that users post right to your computer (talk about convenient!). On the other hand, newsgroup posts are stored on a central computer. In order to view the messages, users must connect to the machine on which the messages are stored and either read them online or download them onto their own computers.

These discussion groups are very useful for networking and connecting with other individuals, particularly if you need to find an expert on a certain topic.

When conducting research, its helpful to understand how the Net functions. For example, files available on web sites and messages posted to newsgroups can both be helpful resources to the student researcher. However, both are governed by different protocols and sometimes require dissimilar research techniques to unearth them.

Copyright Kelly Garbato, 2005

Kelly Garbato is an author, ePublisher, and small business owner. She recently self-published her first book, 13 Lucky Steps to Writing a Research Paper, now available at ( or through Peedee Publishing (

To learn more about the author, visit her web site at


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