Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Uh, Mr. President? The, uh, government, uh, did not create the Internet

Here's what President Barack Obama said:
"The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."
And Slate, plus legions of others, jumped on the old meme that the Internet grew out of Arpanet, and is a government invention:
Rather than founded on the independent spirit of the Wright Brothers, the Internet is literally the bastard offspring of a government civil defense program and European physics research consortium.
The problem?  Both Slate and the President are full of shit.

First, consider what Robert Taylor, who actually directed Arpanet, said way back in 2004:
"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."
Then who did actually invent the internet?
Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
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.
And the government (specifically the National Science Foundation, which was actually the only part of the government ever seriously involved in the development of the Internet), what did the government do?

Nothing, as it turns out:
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."
The government did not create the Internet.  And to paraphrase Jesse Jackson on Ronald Reagan, if Mr. Obama knew that the government didn't invent the Internet and made that speech anyway, that's bad.  But if Mr. Obama, as President of the United States, didn't know the story of how the Internet was invented, that's a whole lot worse.


anonone said...

Regardless of the motivation, the government did, in fact, largely fund the fundamental technologies that became the modern internet.

The foundation of internet communications, TCP/IP, was also called "the DoD model" as it was developed primarily by Cerf and Kahn using DARPA research money.

Hyperlinks were developed and demonstrated by Tim Berners-Lee while he was at CERN, another government funded organization.

To credit the entire internet to Xerox because of their invention of the ethernet system to connect copiers is utterly absurd. The ethernet is probably the most trivial invention of the whole deal. The WSJ is the one "full of shit."

NCSDad said...

Your comment in no way refutes the last quote. The point is;
. In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia."
So without the private sector, the government would not even see the potential, but without the government research it is reasonable to assume the basic research would have occurred by the private sector. In an environment with ~$70,000,000,000,000 in unfunded federal liabilities, I vote for less government.

anonone said...


If you study the history of science and technology, you will learn that many, if not most, incredibly useful and novel scientific discoveries made in the private sector went unnoticed and unused commercially for years or even decades after their initial discovery.

Xerox, for example, failed to recognize and exploit the value of its own technology inventions, such as the computer mouse.

The fact that TCP/IP so-called "languished" is not unusual for a new technology nor is it unique to government.


NCSDad said...

And... In an environment with ~$70,000,000,000,000 in unfunded federal liabilities, I vote for less government.

Which is an issue only tangentially related to the claims about the internet. My point is that the Demublicans are clearing out the moat of their sandcastle with their backs to the coming tsunami.

At least the Libertarians are yelling a warning about the debt wave.

Tyler Nixon said...

Surprised to see a1 buying Obama's utterly ahistoric claptrap about the government "inventing the internet" so all "those companies could make money off the internet".

The sheer idiocy of Obama's crude revisionism aside, the government hardly got involved for anyone to "make money" and, as we have seen government do 100% of the time with R&D - unless it means gov't connected cronies just raping the taxpayers, a la Solyndra, they were hardly interested in enhancing commerce or bettering our world.

If the government of today funded "creating the internet" it would surely be some stunted Orwellian means of tracking, surveilling and otherwise controlling people, not liberating them.

anonone said...

Well, Tyler, facts are facts: The two core technologies that made the Internet possible, TCP/IP and hypertext links, were invented by government-sponsored research, not private industry.

Yes, I agree with you that it wasn't for the pre-intended purpose of companies making "money off the internet;" but how any technology is ultimately used is unpredictable.

So, the first part of Obomba's statement is factually correct; the second part about "make money" is incorrect (as you pointed out).

In regards to your generalization about "100% of the time with R&D," some of the most exciting scientific discoveries of our times in physics is coming from the government-funded Large Hadron Collider. Furthermore, the NIH has made some incredibly important and helpful discoveries that have been successfully commercialized by private industries.


kavips said...

Since anyone can google facts I'll let them, but there would not be an internet if there were no federal government.

There just wouldn't be one.

And from someone who was there, it took a lot of grant money, which was funneled to three universities in California, and one in Utah. to put this together. Not to mention that the backbone of the current system was an NSF offshoot. National Science Foundation meaning "federal dollars."

The whole argument is too silly for these pages. It is like going back 40 years to discuss a World Series win, and argue whether it was the fine coaching OR the individual effort of one player that created the outcome.

Of course it was an amalgamation of the two.......

Of course.

Obama is correct in his statement, as well as the former head of ARPA was correct in his.

anonone said...

Well, Steve, now that Vint Cerf has totally discredited Crovitz's article, saying. "I would happily fertilize my tomatoes with Crovitz' assertion," perhaps you should retract this post in the interest of historical accuracy.

After all, you are a historian who is interested in getting your facts right, aren't you?

You can read the interview with Cerf in which he totally tears apart Crovitz's political hit piece here:


Tyler Nixon said...

You know who else got government "grant" money??

Tyler Nixon said...

And frankly does the alleged fact that 'government invented the internet', paid for by my grandparents' tax money decades ago, turn us all into permanent serfs of the fascist welfare state? Where/when does it end??

Would that government was limited to the usual "roads, bridges, emergency services" etc...God knows we already pay a premium for all that before we even get to the crony fascist national government Ponzi bonanza...(Ponanza?) lol