Sometime recently, in the midst of the lengthy campaign trail, President Obama said some dumb thing about government’s role in developing business — trying, and failing, to mimic Elizabeth Warren’s hyper-viral populist speech — and, well, people are pissed off about it. And, like all dumb gaffes, this one has resulted in millions of words being spewed into the Internet discussing the political ramifications of said dumb words. Which is why, yet again, we’re debating who invented the Internet.
How the Romney campaign ran with Obama’s soundbite
Gordon Crovitz, writing in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, says the notion that the government invented the Internet is a whole bunch of mythological liberal hogwash. Give his column a read:
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.
Crovitz says that a key part of the Internet myth was that the Internet was developed by the military for improved communications during war. While Crovitz does admit that the federal government was involved via ARPA, but only had a small role:
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.”
Okay, so if government didn’t do it, who did?
But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today.
Crovitz then goes on to laud Xerox for succeeding in building the world’s most important network while also fending off the poison tentacles of Big Government. (His following breakdown of why Xerox didn’t become the Gods of the Internet is quite interesting.) But, despite Crovitz’s best efforts, he mixes up some basic semantics that, pedantic as it may seem, is absolutely key to understanding what the Internet actually is. It’s confusing, which is why we’ve discussed it before at Motherboard, but the Web is not the same as the Internet, which is itself just one individual internet.
Author and Internet historian Michael Hiltzik, whom Crovitz cites in his piece, explains further in a rebuttal in the LA Times:
But Crovitz confuses AN internet with THE Internet. Taylor was citing a technical definition of “internet” in his statement. But I know Bob Taylor, Bob Taylor is a friend of mine, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that he fully endorses the idea as a point of personal pride that the government-funded ARPANet was very much the precursor of the Internet as we know it today. Nor was ARPA’s support “modest,” as Crovitz contends. It was full-throated and total. Bob Taylor was the single most important figure in the history of the Internet, and he holds that stature because of his government role.
Hiltzik also notes that Crovitz incorrectly credited a number of key players who invented the early parts of the Internet:
Crovitz then points out that TCP/IP, the fundamental communications protocol of the Internet, was invented by Vinton Cerf (though he fails to mention Cerf’s partner, Robert Kahn). He points out that Tim Berners-Lee “gets credit for hyperlinks.” Lots of problems here. Cerf and Kahn did develop TCP/IP—on a government contract! And Berners-Lee doesn’t get credit for hyperlinks—that belongs to Doug Engelbart of Stanford Research Institute, who showed them off in a legendary 1968 demo you can see here. Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web—and he did so at CERN, a European government consortium.
Okay, perhaps Crovitz did more than mix up some simple semantics. Michael Moyer, writing at Scientific American, went ahead and said what many were thinking: Crovitz has absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. From his story, which you should read:
But Crovitz's story is based on a profound misunderstanding of not only history, but technology. Most egregiously, Crovitz seems to confuse the Internet—at heart, a set of protocols designed to allow far-flung computer networks to communicate with one another—with Ethernet, a protocol for connecting nearby computers into a local network. (Robert Metcalfe, a researcher at Xerox PARC who co-invented the Ethernet protocol, today tweeted tongue-in-cheek "Is it possible I invented the whole damn Internet?")
It’s clear that Crovitz doesn’t understand networks, what they’re called, and how they work. But neither do a lot of us; does that mean that his base argument is incorrect? Absolutely. The story of the Internet isn’t some heroic free market tale of private enterprise fighting against the bloodsucking Feds. In fact, as Hiltzik notes in a wonderful bit of irony, private enterprise itself was anti-net!
So the bottom line is that the Internet as we know it was indeed born as a government project. In fact, without ARPA and Bob Taylor, it could not have come into existence. Private enterprise had no interest in something so visionary and complex, with questionable commercial opportunities. Indeed, the private corporation that then owned monopoly control over America’s communications network, AT&T, fought tooth and nail against the ARPANet. Luckily for us, a far-sighted government agency prevailed.
Of course, this is just another example of why it’s hard to whip up an entire column based around one person’s single, dumb comment. It’s hard to spark a thoughtful debate where there isn’t one, and it’s even hard to pull in thoughtful examples to support your argument when said example is, admittedly, one hell of a confusing topic, especially when you’re shooting for the extreme binary black-and-white that’s all too common in political commentary.
So, yeah, Obama’s comments were dumb, but so is saying that the government had no role in developing the Internet (even as you write it did). The reality, as is so often the case, is a number of shades of gray: Sure, the Internet exploded once it moved into private hands (and even then, it took time). But, as Hiltzik noted, it wouldn’t have been around in the first place had it not been for government funding. And even that isn’t wholly correct, because funding is just the limiting factor. The reason the Internet exists is because of a whole lot of incredibly smart people working with vision and support, and all that hard work is something you simply can’t — and shouldn’t — distill into a pseudo-incendiary column three months away from the election.
Follow Derek Mead on Twitter: @derektmead.