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.