The Government Carried the Internet, Says Farhad Manjoo

Over the years, I've had more than a few copies of the treacly "Footprints" poem thrown in my direction, in which the almighty is credited for carrying the protagonist through tough times. Others clearly find comfort in the text and the many truly bad songs it has spawned, but I've always thought it stripped people of credit for doing the heavy lifting when it really counted. I have pretty much the same reaction to Farhad Manjoo's near-theological genuflection to government in Slate when discussing the provenance of the Internet. "If you spend time looking at the history of the Internet, you’ll find the government there at every step," says he. That's nice. But while you're lighting a candle to the state, how about we take notice of the people who actually did the work?

Manjoo writes in the context of of the current debate over whether people can claim any credit for ther successes or should instead bow down and bang their foreheads on the ground in the direction of the unpleasant odor wafting from the direction of the Potomac river any time they notice black ink in the ledger or achieve a small victory in life. Manjoo falls in the bow-down category. Specifically, he credits government for all things Internet-related, and cleverly plays off a poorly crafted Wall Street Journal piece that challenges that position. Writes Manjoo:

“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.

Manjoo has two advantages here. The first is that Crovitz really doesn't do a good job. The second is that, fueled by Cold War fears in the second half of the twentieth century, the government sucked much of the oxygen out of the room science-wise and became a primary funder for  all sorts of research that didn't necessarily have to be bankrolled by the state. Think of the "Footprints" protagonist strolling down the beach, then being sudenly waylaid by a burly monk who tossed him over his shoulder for a rough jog over the sand. Well ... Thanks for the ride!

Manjoo points this out as he breathlessly asserts:

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.

But as Robert David Graham of Errata Security points out, "It was the height of the Cold War and the era of the 'Star Wars' missile defense system. The Department of Defense (DoD) was throwing money at anything that might have military application." The fact that Cerf and Kahn were "working under funding from the government" doesn't mean that their development of TCP/IP was part of some grand state plan. In fact, Graham continues, the government preferred the competing OSI standard:

What’s important about the Internet is that the OSI standard failed. It’s not the standard of today’s Internet. The government backed the wrong horse, so to speak. Instead, today’s Internet is based on TCP/IP -- a networking standard the government tried to kill off. ...

Government threw money at many networks, including the TCP/IP Internet. TCP/IP was influenced by many things, among them the government. But what government most gave TCP/IP was its benign neglect as it spent its guidance, vision, leadership, and energy on developing the OSI network.

Manjoo tweaks Crovitz for shading the difference between the Internet and the Web:

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.

This is important, because the Web couldn't exist if it didn't have the Internet beneath it. Well ... yes, but the Internet is predated, too by the data-transmitting technologies and networks over which it runs. Those precursors go at least as far back as the telegraph, which is often called "the Victorian Internet" and viewed by some observers as more significant an innovation than the modern version. The Internet couldn't exist without all those wires and cables beneath it.

Manjoo and company are correct to the extent that no one innovator, corporation or entrepreneur can claim authorship of the Internet — but their intent in doing so is to strip private actors of any kudos in favor of collective credit for the state. In fact, the Internet as we know it isn't even a culmination — it's a stage in the development of technology for transmitting and sharing information. Those developments have been driven by researchers and inventors who have inspired each other, competed against each other and built on one another's work in a series of individual and collaborative innovations that should be taken as a celebration of dynamic social organization, not as a tribute to the planning power of government officials.

Certainly, because of Cold War concerns, the government became a major funder of research — often displacing other players and subsequently playing an important role during part of this process of developing what is now the Internet. That such a role may not necessarily be benign should be clear as the federal government pushes schemes to make online traffic easier for bureaucrats to monitor and control — essentially regretting the open nature of the network that Manjoo wants to give it credit for developing.

Thanks for the lift, government. Now let us get back to strolling down the beach — unmolested.

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  • ||

    This entire discussion is fucking stupid. It is completely the result of a stupid president saying something stupid written by a stupid speechwriter, but now that this stupidity has been uttered, it must be defended to the death by stupid TEAM BLUE hacks who don't care how stupid they look defending something this stupid.

    It's stupid.

  • Brandybuck||

    TEAM RED must counter the stupidity with more stupidity. It's stupid. You Earth people are studid. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

    The obvious analogy is missed by everyone: the fucking roads. Gub'ment built some roads and trucks use them to deliver goods. That doesn't justify higher taxes. Opposition to the higher taxes does not mean you want to get rid of TEH ROADZ! Geez the stupid is strong out there.

  • Voros McCracken||

    Thank you Mr. Manlove.

  • R C Dean||

    Tell me more about this burly monk rough riding on the beach.

  • ||

    This whole discussion is bullshit...

    Everyone knows that the reason why there is only one set of foot prints is because God went off to go play chess with Death.

  • SugarFree||

    Whatever part of the Internet you want to say was created by the government, I guarantee you that it was developed slower, costs far more, and works much worse than it should.

    Government builds things by taking money from those that have it and pooling it. There is absolutely nothing about the process that seeks to maximize the economic efficiency and the efficacy of the products or services built or created with that pooled money.

  • ||

    Government steals from the private sector to pay for something: Government gets credit.

    The private sector uses the money that's left to pay for something: Government gets credit.

    Problem?

  • ||

    Want proof that the government didn't "create" the internet?

    1) It works
    2) They don't control it.

  • Raston Bot||

    3) and they're shitting their pants trying to rein it in.

  • Rob||

    2) They don't control it.

    Tell that to the people running Dajaz1.com. They were taken offline, by the feds, for a year over bogus copyright claims. It isn't much of a stretch to think once federal agents get used to seizing domains for copyright concerns, they will start doing the same thing over national security concerns.

  • PapayaSF||

    Don't you just love the irony of the left using military research to justify government? And then using the internet as a justification for absolutely everything they want the government to do? "The government invented the internet, and therefore, the Department of Education is worthwhile!"

  • ||

    They have been doing the same thing for years with NASA. Most of the statists I know are continually pointing to NASA and raving about all the good things that NASA research paid for. However, when you scratch the surface of those claims you find that most of the inventions NASA gets credit for had been developed and were in use before NASA started using them (think Teflon and Tang for two of the most oft-cited).

  • PapayaSF||

    True, and they would gladly kill NASA to use the money for about five hours of Medicare.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Tang sucks.

    Teflon pans don't last that long.

    Sounds like government to me.

  • SIV||

    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

    Ah, 1934 when the government invented electricity by passing the Public Utility Holding Company Act. Our grandparents and great grandparents had to make do with old-fashioned coal gas powered radios and fans.

  • Virginian||

    But leftists actually believe that FDR brought us electric light.

    Who is Wendell Wilkie?

  • SIV||

    At HuffPo or Slate, I forget which, some commenter said the Edison bulb would never have been invented without a government grid to power it.He scored many likes and drew no refutation.These people make young-Earth creationists look like some Alien-race of giant-headed Superbeings.

  • PapayaSF||

    LOL!

  • Raston Bot||

    Has anyone else not read Ars Technica since they rejiggered the layout? The central planning communism from the staff was bad enough but that new layout just kills my eyes.

  • Russell Seitz ||

    My first net connection, via a dorm room teletype, was to the ARPAnet, which classmate Al can't have invented since he didn't have one.

  • dinfeee||

    lol, those silly, bought and paid for politicians crack me up man!

    www.Anon-Rules.tk

  • ||

    This response somebody posted yesterday is awesome: http://lwgat.blogspot.com/2012.....-fail.html

  • ||

    That is a great link that ought to be viralized.

    Let's also credit Linus Torvalds for taking UNIX and turning it into Linux, an operating system that you can run on a conventional PC, which of course is the precursor to Android. At the moment Linux is devouring UNIX's market share. The original UNIX has been taken over by Apple and has morphed into OSX.
    UNIX, per-se, may be a dead technology within a decade as UNIX workstations cease to be in any way superior to PCs running Linux. Meanwhile, SUN Microsystems makes all it's money from Java.

  • ||

    While we are at it, lets remember how Linus Torvalds was denied a work visa in the US because the government didn't think his scientific contributions were important enough.

  • Geoff Nathan||

  • MJGreen||

    Until recently this wouldn’t have been a controversial statement.

    OK, to say "there's some truth to this" would have been one thing. But to say it's not a controversial statement? That the government created the Internet for the express purpose of lowering transaction costs and helping business? That's not even spin, it's flat out false.

  • ||

    Everyone in the tech world knows that the Internet got its start in the 1960s

    Bullshit.

    In 1837, American artist-turned inventor Samuel F. B. Morse conducted the first successful experiment with an electrical recording telegraph.

  • ||

    By the way how were images transmitted across the world for Newspapers before the 1960s?

  • ||

    In 1837, American artist-turned inventor Samuel F. B. Morse conducted the first successful experiment with an electrical recording telegraph.

    Bullshit

    In 787937 B.C., Ook Ook discover fire

  • ||

    Ook Ook is a government stooge who found a dead tree struck by lightning.

    Atouk in 1 zillion BC did all the heavy lifting.

    Anyway your argument is a strawman. The internet is simply a more heavily automated telegraph. Automation that has been steadily improving since its creation. If anything Pentium processors and dial up modems should get the credit for inventing the modern internet. It was those advancements that moved access to telegraphy technologies into people's homes and businesses.

  • Invisible Finger||

    I always thought they were starving and God sacrificed himself so the other could live.

    "Take my body and eat it. Take my blood and drink it." Not one goddamned thing in there about God saying, "Just relax and I'll do all the work."

  • TheZeitgeist||

    I thought it represented missing time from the mystical UFO abduction.

    That's why you recall misery while gone; the implanted memories of life falling apart still better than real ones about uranus orbited while orbiting Uranus.

    Even aliens try to be nice in the end. Thanks, Space-Brothers. Who I might add are the real inventors of the internet.

  • Not an Economist||

    What Manjoo and others are doing is saying without the development of the basic building blocks, the rest of it wouldn't have happened. They have a point.

    But what they are ignoring is there is a lot of work between the building blocks and the finished product. Using an analogy they are basically saying the inventor of paints is primarily responsible for the Mona Lisa, not Da Vinci.

    Personally, I think there is a lot of difference between a bunch of paint and the Mona Lisa.

  • JD the elder||

    Thank you; I like the "paint vs. Mona Lisa" analogy - I've been looking for one like it.

    I was thinking about the "government created the Internet" claim recently, and my conclusion was "perhaps technically true; not very meaningful." For one thing, what is "the Internet"? I doubt half the people talking about it have really thought about that. After all, the Internet as you experience it is a huge collection of hardware, software, and organizations. Let's look at some common technologies that make up the Internet as a whole.

    Internet technologies: a government creation?
    Twisted pair cabling: No (dates back to telegraph days)
    Ethernet: No (Xerox PARC)
    Network Access Points: Yes (now replaced by commercial Internet Exchange Points)
    TCP/IP: Yes
    Internet Engineering Task Force: Yes (now independent)
    Internet Backbone: Yes (National Science Foundation), later commercial (IBM, MCI, others)
    Border Gateway Protocol: No (Cisco, IBM)
    DNS: No (Information Sciences Institute of USC, Berkeley)
    SMTP: No (ISI of USC)
    HTTP and HTML: No (CERN)
    World Wide Web Consortium: No (MIT)
    VOIP: No (lots of organizations)
    Commercial websites and services: No (too many to list)

    What I take away from all this is that the Internet is a success partly because government did what it was good at - setting up some basic infrastructure and open standards - and then let everybody else just run with it from there.

  • ||

    Yes! YES! Steal my meme! Spread it!

  • James Anderson Merritt||

    To stir the pot a little more, consider that many of the "modern" technological concepts we take for granted today were anticipated and hinted at by a federal manager of technology research (an ancestor of ARPA) as WWII was drawing to a spectacularly technological end. Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think": http://www.theatlantic.com/mag.....hink/3881/

    Now, here was a scientist, leading thousands of scientists, who were on Uncle Sam's payroll and under government's direction because there was "a war on." Bush himself credits the government-mandated concentration of scientific effort and focus of collaboration with advancement during this period. But did fighting on "the science front" during WWII spur scientists to great advancements, or distract them from equal or more profound advancements in the private sector?

  • PapayaSF||

    Mostly spur. Nothing focuses the attention, and frees up the pursestrings, like a war.

  • TheZeitgeist||

    War gives you resources to do huge things. I don't think you can top the atom bomb and controlled industrial fission for creating something utterly profound.

    And you can't forget the Nazis either with their autonomous ballistic missiles and jet-propelled swept wing airplanes. Or the Brits who were the electronics-wizards with Blechley Park and cavity-magnetron radar.

    A lot of moving pieces that made all kinds of supercrazy widgets. The only age of a crazy-tech spurt coming from private industry in history is the age we live in now.

    Odd to realize, but in history there is really no other innovative age without the sovereign getting most the cut and cutting most the checks.

  • Jake Badlands||

    None of this shit would have happened if Q had interfered with those amino acids in that little pond of goo. So really, John DeLancie invented the Internet.

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