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AT&T Could Have Bought the Internet in 1971

Recent victories over Hollywood's Stop Online Piracy Act have reinvigorated the fight against a corporate takeover of the internet.
Janus Rose
New York, US

Recent victories over Hollywood's Stop Online Piracy Act have reinvigorated the fight against a corporate takeover of the internet. But throughout this ongoing crusade to keep the 'net democratic and free, one might ask: how did it even get that way in the first place? A big part of it has to do with the fact that in 1971, AT&T decided not to buy it.

It's hard to believe, but yes: AT&T, the telecom giant, passed up an opportunity to own a monopoly on the internet. In the early 70s, the U.S. government's plan for ARPANet was to sell it off to the private sector once it had outlived its usefulness. But when program director Larry Roberts approached the company about taking over, AT&T refused.


"They wouldn't buy it when we were done. I went to AT&T and I made an official offer to them to buy the network from us and take it over. We'd give it to them basically. Let them take it over and they could continue to expand it commercially and sell the service back to the government. So they would have a huge contract to buy service back. And they had a huge meeting and they went through Bell Labs and they made a serious decision and they said it was incompatible with their network. They couldn't possibly consider it. It was not something they could use. Or sell."

It was also the same year that Ray Tomlinson sent the first email. But even that wasn't enough to convince Ma Bell that this new-fangled computer network would evolve into anything profitable. They were also doubtful that ARPA's technicians could get packet-switching, the internet's most fundamental operating principle, to work.

And they weren't alone — nearly everyone at this stage was convinced that ARPANet would be nothing but a government communication experiment. There was actually a great deal of pressure being put on Roberts at the time to divest the technology for fear it would all go to waste once the Department of Defense was through with it. But once the network was properly matured and TCP/IP became the new standard, the government simply allowed it to spread beyond and the free net was born.

It's difficult to imagine what kind of internet we'd have today if AT&T had been a bit more forward-thinking. But it's probably safe to assume that the free culture zeitgeist which led to things like Wikipedia, internet startups and Creative Commons wouldn't have gotten off the ground so easily. In a sense, it's a wonder that we've been able to experience the internet the way we have — a true read/write networked culture, as opposed to a centralized, read-only one like the media that came before it.


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