"How does one connect a country to the internet?"


Mirjana Tasić (centre) at the 30th International Public ICANN Meeting, where the RNIDS Assembly ratified the Letter of Intent with ICANN, signed by a Serbian delegation, in Los Angeles from 29 October to 2 November. Image: Firstsite and Aleksandra Domanović in From yu to me, 2014. 

The following interview was conducted for From yu to me, a documentary film by artist Aleksandra Domanović that narrates the emergence of the internet in the former Yugoslavia, with a particular focus on the .yu domain name. The interview was previously published in a new catalogue produced by Domanović and firstsite, ColchesterBorka Jerman-Blažič played a key role in establishing the internet in Yugoslavia just as the country fell apart; she also registered and initially administered the .yu domain name.

Aleksandra Domanović: As Yugoslavia was starting to disintegrate in the early 1990s, it also became connected to the internet. You played a key role in establishing this connection. How did it all happen?

Borka Jerman-Blažič: It was on 6 August 1991 that CERN debuted the World Wide Web, which was to become the basic service of the modern internet. Just two months after, I attended an Internet Engineering Task Force meeting in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I saw my colleagues working on their home computers just by simple login via the TCP/IP protocol and a Telnet user service. I decided to set up a connection to the internet the moment I got home! (All we had was an email service using old transport protocols known as X.400 and X.25.) At that time I was engaged as secretary general of the Yugoslav Network for the Academic Community, YUNAC, on behalf of which I applied for an internet connection. We managed to connect in November 1991; at that time, only sixteen countries had access to the internet, including Yugoslavia.

AD: How does one connect a country to the internet?

BJB: My first action was to set up an independent entity in the country, and that was YUNAC. The whole activity was carried out by me and included getting permission from my employer – the Jožef Stefan Institute in Slovenia – to set up a non-profit holding company to negotiate with future shareholders and prepare legal documents. After that I was able to register the ccTLD [country code Top-Level Domain] for Yugoslavia, .yu. The next mission was to lease a line to COSINE IXI, the International X.25 Infrastructure Backbone Service. As the project leader, I requested that the international line run between Ljubljana and one other European country that already had access to the internet. It was a difficult task – a war, one might say. First, I encountered problems with the federal organs in Belgrade, and then with the project's partners in Sarajevo. The first considered themselves to be the political, and the second the geographic center of Yugoslavia, which was why they both wanted to be the entry point of the international network IXI. Although I was the project leader for the whole of Yugoslavia, I did everything in my power to keep matters connected to the project- coordination centre here in Ljubljana. Slovenia was the northernmost Yugoslav republic, bordering Austria and Italy; it was a logical gateway to data networks in the West.

AD: I am always confused about whether it was Slovenia or Yugoslavia that got connected to the internet first.

BJB: In June 1991, Slovenia declared its secession. According to international agreement, the status quo was guaranteed until February 1992, when Slovenia got international recognition and was accepted as a new UN member. I carried out all the planned activity during November 1991 in Ljubljana, and this month is considered to be the date the internet began in Slovenia as well as Yugoslavia.

AD: So it would be fair to say that the internet arrived in a dissolving country in the Western Balkans and coincided with huge political and social changes that were happening in the region? 

BJB: Exactly.

AD: To be able to connect to the internet in the first place, you personally registered .yu, the ccTLD domain for Yugoslavia, in 1989. The domain had a very interesting life until it was abolished on 30 March 2010. But it has not quite disappeared – it was acquired by the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade.

BJB: Really, I didn't know this. Am I mentioned there?

AD: I'm not sure. It's their first virtual artefact. The acquisition of the @ symbol by the Museum of Modern Art, New York served as a model to them. For an artist, it is a sign of recognition if a museum acquires your work. To you, it happened inadvertently. Still, I see you as the originator, .yu's creator, whose work has now landed in a museum. Do you see yourself as the author of .yu?

BJB: I don't see myself as an author of .yu because .yu is a two-letter country code, or cc, defined in the international standard ISO 3166. At that time, the late 1980s, the networking people around the TCP/IP stack recognised that generic names like .edu, .gov, .com, etc. were not sufficient for the emerging network, and they decided that in parallel, country codes needed to be registered as internet domains. A country was allowed to register its cc as a top-level domain only if the country had a registered two-letter cc, which all UN members had. For me, as a general secretary of YUNAC, it was sufficient to send a letter to the Network Information Center in New York, with my name as an authorised person and the addresses of the name server. The service for a name server (at the time [1989] we did not have a direct line to the internet, and the top-level-domain name server for .yu did not exist yet in the country) was offered to us by the University of California, Berkeley.

AD: Since we're already discussing ISO standards, before YUNAC you worked on videotext and teletext. Would you say those were the predecessors of the internet?

BJB: Definitely. That was the time when telecommunication services were being developed. Back then we were still using ASCII code, which is based on the English language. The International Organisation for Standardisation, ISO, wanted to introduce code tables for all languages. As the chair of the Yugoslav standardisation committee, I started to work very early on the standardisation of character-set codes for all Yugoslav languages and the country-code standard ISO 3166. Under my leadership, all Yugoslav-language alphabets were standardised in 7-bit code tables and the parallel keyboards. They were registered in the International Register at the ISO in Geneva. Later, the demands of the market were to cover all languages. Here Yugoslavia seemed an ideal candidate, as we knew both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. So I helped develop 8-bit code for networked computers and later on worked on developing the multi-octet character-set tables ISO 10646, also known as Unicode.

AD: This is of course a great contribution to internet literacy in Yugoslavia. In that respect, what you did for .yu is not unlike Ray Tomlinson's appropriation of the @. 

BJB: Just as Vint Cerf is considered the father of the internet, one could say I am the mother of the internet in Yugoslavia, the mother of this domain. You must know that back then our knowledge was somewhat limited, electronic communications as they exist today were not present at all, and I just plunged into the field. We were always regarded as one of the Warsaw Pact countries, and even though we weren't a member, we were a socialist/communist country. All of a sudden I found myself in a much more technologically advanced and developed world. To deal with all of these obstacles as smoothly as we did, one must show quite some skill, knowledge, intellect, vision, and intuition.

Clipping from The Chronicle of Higher Education, Singing the Internet's Praises, 29 June 1994. Courtesy Borka Jerman-Blažič, published by Firstsite and Aleksandra Domanović in From yu to me, 2014.

AD: In 1994, the Chronicle of Higher Education quoted you saying, "Information technology helped Slovenia win the war." Can you explain how?

BJB: When the war began, many Slovenian scientists started sending emails abroad with details of what was going on here. This was only possible because our line to IXI, as well as our old X.400 email system, was independent and connected to the internet through the BITNET network gateway in Paris. These emails reached various universities and friends with internet connections, who then informed the public. It allowed for a somewhat different picture of happenings in Yugoslavia to come out. Serbia had misfortunes, of course, due to its aggression against Croatia and Bosnia. This resulted in sanctions from the UN Security Council. Among other things, this meant cutting them off from the BITNET network. Until then, there was a connection between the University of Belgrade and the Johannes Kepler University of Linz, which used an IBM protocol, the so-called BITNET, and this connection was their link to the world. Before the line was blocked I was, along with other experts, consulted about my standpoint regarding this matter. I warned that it would have really bad consequences if they disconnected the line. People in Serbia were already living under a constant information blockade, as the Milošević regime was in charge of all the TV stations. I explained how the computer network served as a link to the world, enabling an exchange of opinions and helping to inform at least the intellectual circles, but they wouldn't listen to me, and the line was blocked. I believe this happened in late 1992.

AD: What happened with the .yu domain and with YUNAC after that?

BJB: YUNAC tried to transform itself into an international organisation following the example of NORDUnet. The idea was to maintain links among the universities and research institutes of what were becoming separate countries, while letting new national educational networks emerge, along with new ccTLD domains. But even this looser arrangement failed. In 1992, the Academic and Research Network of Slovenia, ARNES, a new institution owned by the Slovenian government, was established; YUNAC belonged to its stakeholders and was still independent. At that time, Slovenia still had no top-level domain, as it was still not a UN member, so in order to function ARNES needed the zone files and the DNS service for .yu. During one weekend in July 1992, the people who were later employed by ARNES broke into my laboratory and, using scissors, cut off the line connecting my computers to the switch located in the cellar of the institute, then copied the zone file for .yu. The next day, on Monday morning, I saw what had happened, the lines being cut off and the computer emptied! However, I couldn't do much to solve the situation. We had a new director who didn't want any trouble, as the scientific council of the institute was just approving my laboratory as an independent department in the institute. After several months, I managed to get a new subdomain, @e5.ijs.si, and connected my computers to the internet again. The destiny of YUNAC and .yu was now passed by the director of the Jožef Stefan Institute to the people running ARNES. They secretively maintained the domain for as long as they could, up until 1994, I think. Until IANA, the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority, demanded that they return it to Serbia and Montenegro, which at that time were still united under the name Yugoslavia. Finally, the domain was abolished in 2010, seven years after the state called Yugoslavia ceased to exist. It is the most heavily used top-level domain ever to be cancelled.

AD: Later you also helped to register another ccTLD, .mk, for Macedonia.

BJB: Yes, I got .mk and maintained their domain name server for five years in my laboratory. The name dispute with Greece is not settled to this day, but I managed to register .mk in 1995 under Macedonia's constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia.

AD: You are actually from Macedonia.

BJB: Yes, I was born in Skopje, and I graduated there as well.

AD: What did you study, and how come you moved to Ljubljana?

BJB: I was always good at mathematics, and I excelled at the Faculty of Technology and Metallurgy in Skopje. When I graduated, I was immediately offered a position in the Department of Chemical Engineering. Back then, the main task was to educate students on how to calculate accounts for optimisation of different processes. To do so we needed computers that we couldn't get in Macedonia at the time; we also didn't have a postgraduate program. That was the reason I enrolled at the Faculty for Electric Engineering in Ljubljana. But I didn't study computer science; back then it was called cybernetics. My master's thesis was on expert systems. Artificial intelligence was very popular then – it's a part of computer science, basically it's solving equations with the aid of computers. Professor Rajko Tomović from Belgrade, the one who became famous for an artificial hand he created, was our lecturer on expert systems as well. After receiving my master's degree, I had two children and started my PhD.

AD: Tomović participated in a variety of scientific research in the USA in the 1960s; his cybernetic hand was one of the first of its kind. I remember an interview where you said, "The times of technological progress of Yugoslavia in the 1980s vanished into thin air." What kind of progress did you have in mind apart from the internet?

BJB: It was in the second half of the 1980s when Yugoslavia's leaders realised that they had to stimulate technological progress, so they established a federal fund for that, the so-called Matić Fund. There were some rather advanced companies working in that field. For example Sarajevo's Elektroinvest, with car production, or Slovenia's Litostroj, which produced turbines for hydroelectric-power stations. We had a public data network called YUPAC, just as the other developed Western countries in Europe did. The pharmaceutical industry was rather strong as well. IZUM, the Institute of Information Science, from Maribor developed a bibliographical system called COBISS, which connected libraries from all of Yugoslavia. Many of these projects were financed by the Matić Fund.

AD: Which also financed YUNAC later on.

BJB: Exactly. YUNAC was established within the European project EUREKA-8/COSINE, which focused on developing research networks in European countries. The Yugoslavian part of COSINE was financed by the Matić Fund. I remember the beginning of European activities within the COSINE project. We met regularly at the so-called workshops, where some of the Eastern Bloc countries, such as Hungary and Poland, also participated. They were experiencing huge difficulties because they were unable to import the equipment from the West; we on the other hand could, plus we had our own developed equipment. In order to be able to establish networks, they were forced to develop hardware themselves, because CoCom, the United States' Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls, controlled the export of weapons and strategic equipment in the so-called Third World countries, which included the countries of the Warsaw Pact. They considered equipment necessary for establishing computing networks to be strategic equipment. We had the benefit of being able to use the software and hardware imported from the West. Most of the IT industry was located in Ljubljana, which was the birthplace of computer science in Yugoslavia.


COSINE implementation led by Jerman-Blažič. Image: Firstsite and Aleksandra Domanović in From yu to me, 2014.  

AD: What about today? How do you see the future of the internet?

BJB: Right now, a battle is being waged between different players. America is trying to retain its dominant role on the internet because it's highly profitable – take Google or Facebook, for example. China, on the other hand, tries to copy everything. It also has very strict internet censorship; its firewall filters everything, and the same goes for India. Something similar is happening in Syria; in Egypt, they even disconnected the mobile network during the riots. ACTA, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a document aimed at controlling internet information flow, wasn't accepted by the European Parliament, but a new proposal called CETA, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement, is already being arranged. We, the old generation of internet developers and users, would like the internet to remain free and neutral without filtering the activities of individual users. All information should be processed equally, regardless of its content. The United States had already attempted to change that on various occasions, now with the so-called intellectual rights protection document, SOPA/PIPA. I don't believe that to be the right way. It would lead the future of the internet to a complete "balkanisation." I think it's rather obvious what that means.

AD: Before we end, I have a completely different question. Since you''re from Skopje, do you still visit the city? Have you seen the newly built statue of Alexander the Great on the main square?

BJB: Of course! It's a shame for such a poor country to spend so much of its money on this. And that museum they erected, the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle, is enormous. Before the earthquake in 1963, when I was just a thirteen-year-old girl, Skopje was a beautiful small city with its own physiognomy. After the earthquake came Kenzo Tange, who constructed all those modern buildings. And what are they doing now? Those triumphal arches are really not appropriate. They made sculptures of professors as horsemen, when in fact none of them ever rode a horse. This statue of Alexander was erected to entertain tourists and authorities.

AD: There's a statue of Alexander the Great in the town of Prilep as well. There is also the Cenotaph for the Fallen Resistance Fighters built by Bogdan Bogdanović in 1961.

BJB: That Cenotaph is beautiful–truly magnificent. But these new monuments, it's not just that they are antique, they are plain ugly. They are out of place, they don't blend in. I firmly believed in a united Europe before. But now, when I think about this whole mess in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, the crisis in Slovenia, I couldn't tell you how the European idea will end.

Borka Jerman-Blažič is a full professor at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Economics, and heads the Laboratory for Open Systems and Networks at the Jožef Stefan Institute. She is a member of numerous international committees, organisations, and associations such as the IEEE Computer Society, the New York Academy of Sciences, and FP7 Security Programme Committee. She was a chair of the Internet Society of Europe and is currently chair of the Slovenian Standardisation Committee on ICT, as well as the Slovenian chapter of the Internet Society, and she is a member of the European ICT Standards Board. She holds a Master of Science degree in electrical engineering from the University of Ljubljana and a PhD in natural and computing sciences from the University of Zagreb.

Previously: The Unfinished Business of a Yugoslav Internet by Brian Droitcour and Aleksandra Domanović's Internet Realism by Michael Connor.