Technologizer

How Government Did (and Didn’t) Invent the Internet

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World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, left, and Vint Cerf, a father of the Internet, pictured in 2009

Last night, I happened across an article by Slate technology scribe Farhad Manjoo. He was responding to an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal by the Journal’s former publisher Gordon Crovitz. And when Manjoo explained just what Crovitz was opining about, I felt my jaw drop to the floor as if I were a character in a 1940s cartoon.

Crovitz, apparently riled up over Barack Obama’s “you didn’t build that” kerfuffle, has an example of something that the government is widely misperceived to have built: the Internet. He actually says, “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet.”

As Manjoo points out, Crovitz’s argument — which rests largely on his contention that the Internet was really created at Xerox’s legendary PARC lab — is bizarrely, definitively false. Manjoo pokes an array of holes in the theory, but there are even more things wrong with it that he doesn’t mention.

Much that eventually helped the Net change everything was invented at PARC, including Ethernet (the brainchild of Bob Metcalfe, who later became my boss when I worked at InfoWorld) and many of the building blocks of the graphical user interface. But not the Internet itself, which began as Arpanet, an effort of the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the late 1960s, under the supervision of visionaries like Bob Taylor. That’s a fact. (Crovitz mentions DARPA and Taylor without ever quite explaining why the thing they put together wasn’t the Internet.)

Also factual: DARPA was where Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf invented TCP/IP, the plumbing that makes the Internet possible. Crovitz mentions TCP/IP and Cerf in passing without connecting them to DARPA, which is a little like writing a history of World War II that discusses Dwight Eisenhower only parenthetically and without noting who his employer was.

How Crovitz can reconcile all this with his stance that the government creating the Internet is an “urban legend,” I don’t know. He’s either intellectually dishonest or historically illiterate; either way, he’s clearly a man with an agenda.

Someone without an ax to grind might well have lavished praise on Xerox — but such a person would surely have pointed out that PARC’s amazing work built on concepts created in the 1960s by Douglas Engelbart. He worked at the Stanford Research Institute, a private organization — but his efforts were funded by DARPA.

Manjoo speculates that Crovitz gives exaggerated credit to Xerox because so many of its technologies eventually led to the Web as we know it today. But if Crovitz’s stance is that the Web is the Internet — which it isn’t — its creation is still not a shining example of the private sector at work. After all, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, was working at a government facility when he started to hash out the idea in 1989 and ’90. It just so happens that the facility in question was CERN, the European particle-research laboratory.

(Crovitz, incidentally, credits Berners-Lee for the hyperlink. Nope: that word was coined by Ted Nelson back in the 1960s. As far as I know, he received no government funding, so Crovitz probably should have mentioned him as supporting evidence for his “urban legend” theory.)

O.K., maybe we’re really talking about Web browsers rather than the Web. I mean, Netscape was one of the most iconic start-ups of all time, right?

Well, sure, but it commercialized the ideas that Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina came up with in Mosaic, the first graphical browser. That was created when Andreessen was a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — a public institution, last time I checked — and worked with Bina at its National Center for Supercomputing Applications, a joint venture of the school, the state of Illinois and the federal government.

There’s an important point that Crovitz seems to attempt to make, although it’s buried under so much misinformation, partisanship and general silliness that it’s largely lost. “Government” didn’t create the Internet and other vital technologies of the modern age of communications. They were created by gifted individuals such as Bob Taylor, Robert Kahn, Vint Cerf, Bob Metcalfe, Douglas Engelbart, Tim Berners-Lee, Ted Nelson, Marc Andreessen and Eric Bina.

All of these groundbreaking technologists are still with us, and all of them deserve endless praise for making the world a better place. They would have done great things even if they’d never had a nickel of funding from any government agency — and some of them have also done enormously important work in the corporate world.

(I’m even prepared to believe that if the Internet hadn’t been invented at DARPA, the private sector would have stepped in and done the job. But we’ll never know for sure, since it was invented at DARPA.)

None of this is a knock on government-assisted innovation. Organizations can pay bills and build teams, but in the end, everything is invented by individuals, including the stuff that comes out of Apple or Google or any innovative company you choose to mention.

Come to think of it, Crovitz’s own piece proves that point. He wrote it for the Wall Street Journal, presumably without any government subsidy — and boy, did he ever invent his own facts.

20 comments
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jscottu
jscottu

Since 1913 we have not had a true "free market" economy.  Many parts of our economy are organized along the "fascist" model (a private company working for the government).  Some parts are pure "socialist" (our government school system).  Even a private company that sells to private citizens experiences excessive government controls.  In that environment the "internet" was created.   If the government had been COMPLETELY in control we would have advanced slower than the USSR (who stole much of their technology).  Should we THANK the government for excessive interference in our economy?  I don't think so.

failureofreality
failureofreality

One fact is beyond dispute:  the internet is the creation of scientists and engineers.  Not politicians and entrepreneurs. 

Dwight Jones
Dwight Jones

Wrong again. The Internet was initiated via adoption of TCP/IP by the BBS community, whose nominal father was Jack Rickard. 

A utility called Fracterm could show magazine pages with images in real time, using fractal compression long before  JPG or Mosaic existed. BBS operators accordingly became the first ISPs, before the telcos and cable companies panicked and finally came to their senses, a decade later.For some reason, this is all ignored, and obviously effectively so.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken

I used and loved BBSs starting in 1979, but if what we're talking about is the "launching" of the Internet--and that's what Crovitz said he was talking about--they weren't it.

Anjuan Simmons
Anjuan Simmons

Obama was simply stating that the government (which American tax payers and corporations fund) provides services that are leveraged by the private sector. For example, UPS didn't have to build interstate highways to go about their business of shipping packages across the country. Does that mean that the government built UPS? No. It simply means that UPS benefits from something done by the government. Similarly, companies that use the internet for commerce have benefitted from something with a foundation that was largely laid by the government. Therefore, corporations have a responsibility to give back to the government and the people who fund it.

dirtydog1776
dirtydog1776

Corporations and individuals do give back to the government, it is called taxes.  Duh!

Unless you are an Obama crony, in which case you are able to get rich from the freebies he is passing out.

Anjuan Simmons
Anjuan Simmons

Not all corporations pay taxes.

What freebies are being given away by Obama?

David Shumate
David Shumate

Why don't you ask GE and his job Czar that runs GE where all the taxes they are sposed to pay went?  Obunghole is a huge hypocrite and with the Solyndra green company money laundering, I think the case could be easily made for criminal activity as well.  Fraud is up there too, but money laundering is bad enough... for petes sake, wake the F up people@!

Nanettejen
Nanettejen

We had no browsers, of course.  And we had no WWW.  They were invented much later to facilitate public's use of the inherent capabilities....AttractiveWay7.blogspot.com

Joe_Rader
Joe_Rader

As a programmer, I used ARPANet in 1974 to broadcast source code updates between agencies of the US  Army.   We had no browsers, of course.  And we had no WWW.  They were invented much later to facilitate public's use of the inherent capabilities.  I can understand why people get confused about all this.   It was certainly an evolutionary process.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

Before there was a public Internet there was "ARPANet".

Government funded computer communications network connecting government and  military research departments which metamorphosed into including educational institutions and more.

Then came mail text communications programs / companies like CompuServe and AOL, then the first real claimant to the public Internet throne, Netscape the first modern web browser which came from the University  of Illinois who not coincidentally had one of the demilitarized and University qualified ArpaNet links.

Eventually the public Internet evolved into what it is today greatly assisted by Microsoft's Internet Explorer (copy of NetScape and bundled with Windows) and Apples efforts.

A lot of what are now accepted as common modes of interaction like the mouse and the graphical user interface got their start at Xerox PARC which was virtually ordered by the Xerox home office to give it all away to Steve Jobs and Apple (who now also rewriting history takes credit for most of it itself.)

PARC had some seminal ideas for computer network communications (a lot of which came from Stanford's SRI group), but they sure as hell didn't invent the Internet.

The Government started it and everybody else jumped in and improved it.

I know I was there.

Gary McCray
Gary McCray

A little qualification!.

While I was working at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory on the Shiva Fusion Laser project I was directly involved with several of the new hires from the University of Illinois who had been working on ArpaNet and network communications development at the University of Illinois.

And of course we were using ARPANet extensively at the Lab at that time.

I have lived through and have directly experienced pretty much every step of the Internet's development from it's beginnings.

Mark Spaeth
Mark Spaeth

While the facts of who 'invented' what while working where shouldn't be disputed, many of the technologies you cite were the result of individual efforts within government-funded organizations, not the result of top-down directives from "government".   While Berners-Lee 'iinvented' the web at CERN, that was incidental to his job, and giving his employer credit for his efforts  seems specious.  

harrymccracken
harrymccracken

Absolutely true--like I say, "the government" doesn't invent stuff. Of course, many important things "invented" by the private sector didn't result from top-down directives, either...

wurman
wurman

Didn't quite read or understand the article, ayeh Champ. The government, that is the Dept. of Defense, NSA, CIA, and FBI did in fact serially "invent," devise, develop, and implement ARPANet. The purpose was to exchange information among the gov't agencies, defense contractors (I was at Boeing), and the federally funded research projects at major universities. I repeat, the government did invent the system and then turned it over to the private sector. Oddly, Manjoo and Cravitz leave out the key element: packet switching.

Adam
Adam

The internet as we know it today, it's major databases, web hosts and client computers are almost fully supplied by private industry.

So, the internet we are on, isn't the Government's. They DIDN'T build that.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken

Of course: Nobody disputes that. And Crovitz could have said that. But he didn't: He said it was an urban legend that the government LAUNCHED the Internet. He doubled down on his fantasy.