Earlier this month, President Obama argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure. He cited roads, bridges, and schools. Then he singled out the most clear-cut example of how government investment can spark huge business opportunities: the Internet.
“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama said. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”
Until recently this wouldn’t have been a controversial statement. Everyone in the tech world knows that the Internet got its start in the 1960s, when a team of computing pioneers at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency designed and deployed ARPANET, the first computer network that used “packet switching”—a communications system that splits up data and sends it across multiple paths toward its destination, which is the basic design of today’s Internet. According to most accounts, researchers working on ARPANET created many of the Internet’s defining features, including TCP/IP, the protocol on which today’s network operates. In the 1980s, they strung together various government and university networks together using TCP/IP—thus creating a single worldwide network, the Internet.
Suddenly, though, the government’s role in the Internet’s creation is being cast into doubt. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” Gordon Crovitz, the former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, argued Monday in a widely linked Journal op-ed. Instead, Crovitz believes that “full credit” for the Internet’s creation ought to go to Xerox, whose Silicon Valley research facility, Xerox PARC, created the Ethernet networking standard as well as the first graphical computer (famously the inspiration for Apple’s Mac). According to Crovitz, not only did the government not create the Internet, it slowed its arrival—that researchers were hassled by “bureaucrats” who stymied the network’s success.
“It's important to understand the history of the Internet because it's too often wrongly cited to justify big government,” Crovitz says. I’ll give him one thing: It is important to understand the history of the Internet. Too bad he doesn’t seem interested in doing so.
Crovitz’s entire yarn is almost hysterically false. He gets basic history wrong, he gets the Internet’s defining technologies wrong, and, most importantly, he misses the important interplay between public and private funds that has been necessary for all great modern technological advances.
If you spend time looking at the history of the Internet, you’ll find the government there at every step. Researchers working directly for the government and at university labs funded by the government were some of the first people on the planet to think up a worldwide network, and, at the beginning, they were the only people working to build such an outlandish thing. That’s not true just of the Internet. Pop open your smartphone and you’ll find government research at the heart of just about every component, from the batteries to the GPS chip to the microprocessor to the multitouch interface.
This doesn’t mean that the government deserves all credit for creating your phone. But it does mean that President Obama was right—in tech, no one does anything on his own. Useful products are usually the result of years of research by smart people at various instituitions: government labs, university labs, and corporate R&D campuses. The history of the Internet, like much of everything else that makes our world so magical, proves that in the tech industry, it takes a village.
If you want to find out who built the Internet and why, there are a few main sources you should consult. If you’ve got time, read Where Wizards Stay Up Late, Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s definitive history of the founding of the worldwide network. If you don’t have much time, look at A Brief History of the Internet, written by many of the scientists who worked on the system in its early days. The many Wikipedia articles on the history of the Internet are also quite helpful. All these sources put the lie to Crovitz’s ridiculously partisan theory that Xerox, and not the government, created the Internet.
Some of Crovitz’s errors seem to stem from technological ignorance; in arguing that Xerox’s graphical machines were in some way responsible for the design of the Internet, Crovitz seems to conflate the Internet and the World Wide Web. The Web is the system of linked, usually graphical documents you see in a Web browser—i.e., sites like Slate. The Internet is the network over which the Web and other communications systems—e-mail, instant messaging, file-sharing—travel. The Internet predated the Web.