The Outrageous Conservative Claim That the Government Didn’t Invent the Internet

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
July 24 2012 6:03 PM

Obama Was Right: The Government Invented the Internet

Don't believe the outrageous conservative claim that every tech innovation came from private enterprise.

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Other times, Crovitz strays into what seems like intentional intellectual dishonesty. He mentions offhandedly that “Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol,” but he skips over both the gravity of this development and the government’s role in it. TCP/IP is the Internet’s defining language, the only reason that any two computers, anywhere, can send a message to one another. In this way, TCP/IP is the Internet. What’s more, Crovitz neglects to mention that when Cerf created TCP/IP, he did so with Robert Kahn, who was an employee of the Defense Department, and that both of them were working under funding from the government.*

What about Ethernet, Xerox’s networking system, which Crovitz credits with being primarily responsible for the Internet? He’s right that Ethernet certainly was vital to the widespread adoption of networked computers. But as Ars Technica’s Timothy Lee points out, Ethernet connects different computers into a single network and does not connect different networks into a single larger network—which is what the Internet is, by definition. Calling Ethernet the foundation of the Internet is like calling sidewalks the foundation of the modern transportation network. Sure, sidewalks are important in how you walk around your neighborhood, but they don’t play much of a role in how you get from Paris to New York.

Crovitz’s contention that the government slowed down the Internet is also totally backward. In fact, if you want to blame any single institution for delaying the Internet, your best bet would be the largest private corporation in the land—AT&T. In 1960, an engineer named Paul Baran came up with the idea of a packet-switching network. Baran was working for the RAND Corporation, a government-funded think tank, and he’d been looking for ways to create networks that would survive a disaster. Baran saw that the country’s most basic communications infrastructure—especially the telephone network maintained by AT&T—had several central points of failure. If you took out these central machines, the entire network would fail. His insight was to create a decentralized network, one in which every point was connected to every other point in multiple ways—your message from New York to San Francisco would get split into packets and might pass through Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa, or St. Louis. If one of those nodes were taken out, most of your message would get through, and the network would still survive.

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As recounted in Where Wizards Stay Up Late, when Baran presented this idea to AT&T, the company’s engineers thought he was nuts. They argued that he had no idea how to run a communications system, and they fiercely resisted the idea of creating a packet-switching network. And that’s why the task fell to the federal government—the Defense Department had to create the Internet because private enterprise refused to.

Decades later, it’s easy to blame AT&T for being short-sighted. At the time, though, the company’s decision seemed perfectly reasonable. Baran was proposing something completely radical—who in his right mind would route a message from New York to San Francisco through so many different paths? And why make such a huge change when AT&T’s old way worked so well for its own aims (that is, building a profitable business)?

In other words, creating something as grand and untested as the Internet was something that a private company simply couldn’t do. The project was too big, and the payoff too uncertain. That’s true of most technologies in their infancy. The Army created ENIAC, the world’s first general-purpose computer—and only after the military proved the basic idea was sound did IBM jump into the business. Apple began working on a multitouch interface in the 2000s, but that was only after decades of research at other labs, including by many researchers funded by the government. The American military developed and launched the network of satellites that form the Global Positioning System—and only then could tech companies come along to make spectacular use of that system.

None of this is to deny the importance of private enterprise in tech. Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and every start-up in Silicon Valley deserves credit for today’s tech marvels. But not a single one of them could have done much of anything without pioneering work by the government. The Internet, the Web, the microprocessor, GPS, batteries, the electric grid—if you’ve built a thriving company that depends on any of these things, you didn’t get there on your own. Or, as the president once said: You didn’t build that.

Correction, July 24, 2012: This piece originally misspelled the last name of Robert Kahn. (Return to the corrected sentence)

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.