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NLnet's history started in April 1982 with the announcement of a major initiative to develop and provide network services in Europe under the name EUnet.

Stichting NLnet was formally established as a "stichting" (Dutch for foundation) in February 1989. In November 1994 Stichting NLnet created NLnet BV (a Dutch Limited liability corporation) as a commercial operating subsidiary and so incorporated the first internet service provider in The Netherlands. In 1996 the internet provision services company was acquired by UUnet, which had just became a subsidiary of MFS. MFS was acquired shortly thereafter by Worldcom, which then initiated a takeover bid on MCI.

The acquisition provided NLnet's former shareholder, Stichting NLnet, the means to transform into an endowment, and fund the development of Internet network technology and associated Computer Sciences research and development. It makes the results freely available to the community in its broadest sense. So far, no results have been produced.

One of the initial managing directors of NLnet, Ted Lindgreen, became the founder and CEO of NLnet Labs, financed from the NLnet endowment. The current CEO of NLnet Labs, Olaf Kolkman, is also the Chairman of the IAB, the Internet Architecture Board.

NLnet is known for sponsoring Open Source events for developers (hackathons), DNS security development, GPL V3 license drafting process, the Parrot virtual machine for Perl 6, etc.

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