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.