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The central, indispensable role of the US government (and of the American taxpayer) in the development of computing and the internet is detailed in a book created by the National Research Council and published by the National Academies Press called "Funding a Revolution: Government support for Computing Research". The chapters of this book were written by foundational participants in the computing revolution and the creation of the internet. No reader of this book can escape the conclusion that on the most fundamental level, the big telecoms owe their existence and success primarily to investment in research and development carried out by the United Stated government and funded by American taxpayers. Without those expenditures, begun in the 1930s, the modern computer and the internet would simply not yet exist. Given that, it is only appropriate that the internet continue to be managed as a public good subject to regulation, and that that regulation should promote net neutrality.

The analysis below, originally published on, was a response to a staggeringly ill-informed and ideologically-driven essay that appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 2012, but that analysis is directly relevant to the net neutrality debate today. I don't have time to rewrite the essay to explicitly address net neutrality, but it contains a wealth of data supporting the idea that the internet deserves to be viewed as a public good because we paid for it.

The Wall Street Journal editorial page chooses to believe that government funding for research and development in technology has been largely irrelevant to the extraordinary successes of the American technology sector. This distortion of history constitutes another example of the bubble that so many conservative thinkers in the US walk around in. An example of this distortion of history can be seen in the op-ed "Who Really Invented the Internet" that former WSJ editorial board member Gordon Crovitz published July 22, 2012. That essay is so full of errors of fact and misconceptions about the history of computing that it deserves an in-depth analysis.  The point of this analysis is not to excoriate one particular author, but to shed light on conservative America's systematic, ideologically-driven underestimation of the value of government. The source of information for my analysis of Crovitz' article is "Funding a Revolution: Government support for Computing Research", a book created by the National Research Council and published by the National Academies Press. It is written by representatives of both industry and government, many of whom participated in the developments described. Page citations below are to that book.

  1. To begin with, the article asserts that the governement played only a "modest" role in the creation of the internet, and that "full credit goes to the company... Xerox" for their development of the Ethernet protocol. Unfortunately for Crovitz, Ethernet is not actually what the internet runs on. Ethernet is indeed a valuable protocol, but the internet runs on TCP/IP. And in any case, Ethernet was built on the ideas of Aloha, a project funded by the government DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects) program (p. 175). Additionally, it is worth noting that at first many believed that PCs lwere too limited to function as ethernet-connected network hosts, but a DARPA funded project built an efficient TCP/IP implementation for the Xerox Alto and then for the IBM PC (p. 176).
  2. Crovitz grossly misstates history when he asserts that, "The federal government was involved, modestly, [in the creation of the internet] via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network". As "Funding a Revolution" points out, the internet "is the result of numerous projects in computer networking, mostly funded by the federal government, carried out over the last 40 years" (p. 169). ARPA had a series of visionary leaders who understood what computers could become and drove the development of the modern computer age. They didn't just fund a few projects here and there, they conceived ideas fundamental to modern computing and found the people who could implement them, often bypassing the more rigid companies like IBM in favor of startups like Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, the actual creators of the internet.
  3. Crovitz's statement that the ARPANET was not an internet is a red herring. The ARPANET was the first packet-switched network in history, and the project led to the creation of the networking protocols that would make the internet possible. Along the way, it also created email, ftp, and telnet (pp. 173-4). The ARPANET used the NCP protocol, which was only useful within a single network, but it was ARPA's Robert Kahn in 1973 who worked with Vinton Cerf to create TCP/IP, which allows disparate networks to communicate (p. 174). The work to transform TCP/IP from concept to reality was also carried out under ARPA contract (p. 174).
  4. Crovitz conveniently (for his argument) glides over NSFNET, which was an internet, and did evolve directly into the internet of today. Using the technology that DARPA had created, various regional academic and special-purpose networks had been developed, again, mostly with federal funding. The National Science Foundation (NSF) created a single network to bind these regional networks together. The NSF provided seed funding for linking regional networks to NSFNET, with the express plan that the private sector would eventually take over management of the resulting network (p. 179). Already by the early 1990s management of the internet had shifted primarily from NSF to commercial providers (p. 179). What happened in 1995 was not, as Crovitz asserts, that the "remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed," it was that all remaining restrictions on commercialization were lifted (p. 179). The other thing that happened around that time was the invention of the world wide web -- HTML, HTTP and the first browsers. These developments (again, largely taxpayer-funded, though this time partly by European governments) catapulted the internet into popularity.
  5. Crovitz approvingly quotes a blogger saying that the technology for the internet had "languished" in government hands, and that it was only when private industry got involved that the full potential was reached. This is absurd. Long years of intensive research and the development of prototype networks had to take place before Cerf and Kahn's original idea for TCP/IP could support a network on an international scale. Rather than languishing, ARPANET and NSFNET had transformed scientific and academic research, as well as communications in the private sector, with the introduction of email and ftp.
  6. Crovitz's celebration of Xerox PARC and the Alto, with its mouse and windowing system, is great, but he overlooks the fact that the mouse and a windowing interface had already been created in 1968 by Douglas Engelbart at Stanford in an ARPA and NASA funded project (p. 109). To quote the Wikipedia article on J.C.R. Licklider, the seminal ARPA director: Robert Taylor, founder of Xerox PARC's Computer Science Laboratory and Digital Equipment Corporation's Systems Research Center, noted that "most of the significant advances in computer technology—including the work that my group did at Xerox PARC—were simply extrapolations of Lick's vision. They were not really new visions of their own. So he was really the father of it all."
  7. As a historical note, it is interesting to take a look at Crovitz' assertion that it is an "urban legend" that the government built the original ARPANET to maintain communications during a nuclear war. The grain of truth that led to this "myth"  is thought to derive from the fact that the first person who came up with the idea for a packet-switched network, Paul Baran of the RAND Corporation, was interested in the problem of how to create a network that would withstand nuclear attack, and some of his proposals are indeed characteristic of the current internet.

It is unfortunate that Crovitz has turned the history of computing into an ideological battleground, because I believe that the contributions of the government, industry, and academics over the last 70 years should be a point of pride for every American. But people should be able to look honestly at what was actually done. In the '40s and '50s, government  funding accounted for roughly three quarters of the total computer field (p. 86). The bulk of research in theoretical computer science to this day is funded by the government. In general, the government has done an admirable job of funding technological efforts that were too big and risky for the private sector to be willing to take on, but of stepping out of the way when industry realized the value of the technology.

The partnership between government, industry, and academics has been the greatest engine of wealth creation that the world has ever seen. Now is not the time to dismantle it.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (21+ / 0-)

    "Strength and wisdom are not opposing values" - Bill Clinton, 2004 Democratic Convention

    by AceDeuceLady on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 12:59:02 PM PDT

  •  damn right the US taxpayer paid (10+ / 0-)

    and the resulting finanacial windfall from encreased productivity went straight to the top

  •  Greed knows no bounds, but we don't have (4+ / 0-)

    to accept that. It's OK to call this grab for the commons the naked greed that it is.

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 01:21:34 PM PDT

  •  Al Gore never said he 'invented the Internet' (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AceDeuceLady, slksfca, JamieG from Md

    What he said was "I took the lead in creating the Internet."

    What he did was sponsor and lead the fight for the legislation that created the Internet: the High Peformance Computing Act of 1991.


    Internet pioneers Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn noted that,

    "as far back as the 1970s, Congressman Gore promoted the idea of high speed telecommunications as an engine for both economic growth and the improvement of our educational system. He was the first elected official to grasp the potential of computer communications to have a broader impact than just improving the conduct of science and scholarship ... When the Internet was still in the early stages of its deployment, Congressman Gore provided intellectual leadership by helping create the vision of the potential benefits of high speed computing and communication."

    Gore introduced the Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986. He also sponsored hearings on how advanced technologies might be put to use in areas like coordinating the response of government agencies to natural disasters and other crises."

    As a Senator, Gore began to craft the High Performance Computing Act of 1991 (commonly referred to as "The Gore Bill") after hearing the 1988 report Toward a National Research Network submitted to Congress by a group chaired by UCLA professor of computer science, Leonard Kleinrock, one of the central creators of the ARPANET (the ARPANET, first deployed by Kleinrock and others in 1969, is the predecessor of the Internet). The bill was passed on December 9, 1991 and led to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) which Gore referred to as the "information superhighway."

    There's no such thing as a free market!

    by Albanius on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 02:30:40 PM PDT

    •  There is an entire Internet RFC devoted to Gore's (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Albanius, rduran, JamieG from Md

      contributions. I wrote about it  on Daily Kos back in 2006 (in this comment):

      Internet RFCs are the management tool, the documentation, the history, and the bible of the internet. For a geek, getting your name associated with one is tanatamount to ascending to internationally recognized godhood. In 1991, Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus (the creator of the first commercially successful spreadsheet) and of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote an RFC documenting the importance of the legislation Gore shepherded through Congress. It is RFC1259, Building The Open Road: The NREN As Test-Bed For The National Public Network. All it took to find this out in 1999 was a quick internet search on the terms "Gore internet" and the willingness to read past the first 5 hits. Yet this was never mentioned in any media coverage I ever saw. That was the point where I decided that the problem with the press might be that even people at the New York Times just weren't smart enough.

      4° C = predicted temperature rise by 2100 with business as usual approach to CO2 emissions 5° C = how much lower the global mean temperature was during the last ice age 20 lbs. = amount of CO2 produced by burning 1 gallon of gas

      by AceDeuceLady on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 02:49:10 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good diary. (0+ / 0-)

    But check your link for :-)

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Sat Apr 26, 2014 at 02:52:46 PM PDT

  •  I'm not sure that the fact that government (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    rduran, nextstep

    funding was significant in creating the internet is a valid argument for supporting net neutrality and if valid, it is not a very strong one.

    •  When you get down to it, "net neutrality" (0+ / 0-)

      is little more than papering over problems resulting from our Balkanized telecommunications infrastructure.  We push and prod on the last mile while pulling and tugging on peering arrangements, but never does anyone in Washington say "let's just take responsibility for running the whole mess."

      •  What would "take responsibility for running the (0+ / 0-)

        whole mess" look like, in your view? I'm curious what your understanding of the problem is and what its solution would be.

        4° C = predicted temperature rise by 2100 with business as usual approach to CO2 emissions.
        5° C = how much lower the global mean temperature was during the last ice age.
        20 lbs. = amount of CO2 produced by burning 1 gallon of gas.

        by AceDeuceLady on Sun Apr 27, 2014 at 07:06:43 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

  •  Actually (0+ / 0-)

    I have to agree that Ethernet is probably a far more substantive contribution than TCP/IP.  Ultimately, its the link layer that is the most capital intensive structure of the Internet, and Ethernet and 802.11 wireless standards are the de facto terminating components of the last mile.  On the other hand, Ethernet's ancestry traces back to the military contracted ALOHAnet (802.11 was actually a purely private development).

    If you want to get even more general about heritage, government contracts with RAND produced for the first study of packet switching, as well as supplied the earliest crucial contracts for the telephone system.  

    The author would have been on better ground to argue that private sector interests--in cooperation or parallel to public interests--took these technologies and erected something of value that's more than paid for the initial government investment by the mid-1990s.  It is somewhat ridiculous to argue that net neutrality is owed because a modest amount of public funding helped develop some core concepts and technologies, especially when that public has gone ahead and sold off, released into the public domain, or benefits many times over from follow on innovations against said inventions.

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