The Internet – Couldn’t Have Happened without Government Investment

In the wake of President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech which we provided in full context, there’s a right wing push out there to refute the notion that government had nothing to do with the development of the commercial Internet which you’re using to watch us practice our First Amendment Rights.

The Wall Street Journal had this piece Sunday that seeks to take the President to task regarding how the Internet came about:

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.

For many technologists, the idea of the Internet traces to Vannevar Bush, the presidential science adviser during World War II who oversaw the development of radar and the Manhattan Project. In a 1946 article in The Atlantic titled “As We May Think,” Bush defined an ambitious peacetime goal for technologists: Build what he called a “memex” through which “wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”

That fired imaginations, and by the 1960s technologists were trying to connect separate physical communications networks into one global network—a “world-wide web.” The federal government was involved, modestly, via the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Its goal was not maintaining communications during a nuclear attack, and it didn’t build the Internet. Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an email to fellow technologists in 2004 setting the record straight: “The creation of the Arpanet was not motivated by considerations of war. The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.”

If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.

As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Blogger Brian Carnell wrote in 1999: “The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”

It’s important to understand the history of the Internet because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It’s also important to recognize that building great technology businesses requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do—not the government—deserve the credit for making it happen.

Richi Jennings, a technology analyst and editor of a UK based technology site, had a fit when he read the piece and offered these facts to refute it:

According to an op-ed piece by L. Gordon Crovitz, the U.S. government had nothing to do with the invention of the Internet. Is he being serious?

Apparently, he is; and he goes on to make several more of these serious historical errors, not to mention a few non-sequiturs and bizarre leaps of cognition. And I thought the Journal was supposed to be a paper of record?

Crovitz’s underlying message seems to be political. I really don’t want to get into making political points in this organ, but I can’t let these egregious errors of fact stand unchallenged.

Crovitz rightly says that the old saw about the Internet being invented for the purposes of resilience in times of nuclear war is an urban legend (although, like many such legends, it does contain a grain of truth). However, he’s conflating two different things: one a truth and one a falsehood: the Internet was invented by the government, but not to provide resilient communications.

He rightly says that the ARPAnet was not the Internet — however, it was clearly the prototypical Internet. The clue to the sponsorship of the work is in the name: ARPA (later DARPA) — a government agency.

He also rightly says that Vint Cerf invented the TCP/IP protocol suite (although co-invented would have been accurate, as Robert E. Kahn was there too). But their wages were being paid by whom? Why, the DARPA IPTO, of course!

In the very same paragraph, he goes on to misunderstand the difference between the Internet and the Web, and waves into irrelevance the hypertext work done by luminaries such as Nelson, Engelbart, van Dam, Atkinson, etc. In fact, we’re told that “Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.” Now, Tim gets credit for a lot of important things, but hyperlinks really ain’t one of them.

This one will really grind your gears: Crovitz says Xerox PARC developed Ethernet “to link different computer networks.” He then adds some tenuous quotes and miraculously leaps to the conclusion that Xerox “created the Internet.” My word, that was jolly clever of them.

(In fact, those tenuous quotes were outed by Timothy B. Lee, as not even being made by the person to whom he attributes them. Amazing.)

If you’re looking for an organization that actually made Internet backbone connectivity happen, you could do worse than point to the National Science Foundation and its NSFnet effort. (Yes, in case you’ve not guessed it, that’s another one of those inconvenient government agencies again.)

In fact it wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the NSFnet backbone was privatized. That project was the reality behind the oft-misquoted Al Gore quote that he “invented the Internet” — what he did was to push through the High Performance Computing Act of 1991.

We’ve noted before Vint Cerf says Gore gets an enormous deal of credit for passing legislation that helped fund the Internet’s R&D, but the claim became a joke amonst rigth wingers who simply refused to believe the facts as spelled out by those who were there first hand.

I run my business using the Internet.  I’m glad my tax dollars have gone to such a useful investment that helps me, my clients and my employees.


  5 comments for “The Internet – Couldn’t Have Happened without Government Investment

  1. Pedroza for City Council
    July 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm

    From the same moron who suggests”Bane” from the Batman movie USA swipe at Romney? Thanks for the laugh

  2. junior
    July 25, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Dan – I challenge you to produce ONE credible source which documents that any conservative has said that “government had nothing to do with development of the Internet.”

  3. junior
    July 25, 2012 at 8:13 pm

    @Pedroza for City Council – Could you please find another blog handle? Yours is despicable.

  4. Pedroza for SAUSD
    July 26, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Sorry Juniot. Is this better? Notice how Art hasn’t told anyone he pull led papers yet? Rocco Pedroza. 4 time loser.

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