By Jodi Lieberman
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on July 22nd, L. Gordon Crovitz attempted to redress what he believed to be a common “urban legend”: the government invented the Internet. Unfortunately, he muddied the facts to fit his argument and, in the process, propagated the notion that the federal government should get out of the basic science business. Luckily, Scientific American, Ars Technica, and other technologists assailed Crovitz’ s erroneous history and set the record straight.
On the Scientific American blog, Michael Moyer noted that “… Crovitz’s story is based on a profound misunderstanding of not only history, but technology. Most egregiously, Crovitz seems to confuse the Internet—at heart, a set of protocols designed to allow far-flung computer networks to communicate with one another—with Ethernet, a protocol for connecting nearby computers into a local network.”
Yes, Virginia, there is an Internet. But, its critical bits and pieces, particularly the TCP/IP communications protocol and the World Wide Web, were invented by scientists (Vincent Cerf, Robert Kahn and Tim Berners-Lee) using government funding.
The TCP/IP protocol allowed Cerf and Kahn to connect four computer network nodes at the University of California, Los Angeles; the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif.; and the University of Utah for the first time. This momentous occasion, which happened 43 years ago—on December 5, 1969—doubled the size of the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) ARPANET. On that day, the fundamental communications protocol gave rise to the Internet as we know it today.
Berners-Lee developed the World Wide Web while working as a software consultant at the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva. His goal was to enable scientists working around the world to exchange data with one another regardless of the type of computer or documents they were using.
Those are the facts according to anyone who knows technology history.
But Crovitz attempts to prove otherwise.
In an effort to remove government from the equation, he proposed that Xerox PARC invented the Internet. He then used a history of Xerox written by Michael Hiltzik to prove his point.
The problem? He gets it completely wrong. And Hiltzik calls out Crovitz for distorting the facts.
“[And] while I’m gratified in a sense that he cites my book about Xerox PARC, Dealers of Lightning, to support his case, it’s my duty to point out that he’s wrong. My book bolsters, not contradicts, the argument that the Internet had its roots in the ARPANet, a government project. ”
In fact, Hiltzik points out that the private sector wanted absolutely nothing to do with what would become the Internet revolution.
“Private enterprise had no interest in something so visionary and complex, with questionable commercial opportunities. Indeed, the private corporation that then owned monopoly control over America’s communications network, AT&T, fought tooth and nail against the ARPANet.”
So, why would Crovitz go to such lengths to disprove the fact that government funding provided the seed corn for one of the modern era’s most important innovations?
It isn’t totally clear.
But the upshot of Crovitz’s seriously flawed WSJ piece is that it gives credence to the belief that government has not and should not be involved in scientific research and innovation. However, Crovitz’s critics reinforce the fact that, without the visionary, far-reaching and risky research that the federal government funded, the Internet and the World Wide Web would not have been created.
And what about that other urban legend — the one which alleges that Al Gore invented the Internet? He didn’t do it, and he never made such a claim. But, he can claim that he gave the Internet a significant legislative boost.
The “High Performance Computing Act,” which became known as the “Gore Bill,” was enacted into law in 1991. The bill helped accelerate the infrastructure known as the “Information Superhighway” that enabled the Internet as well as the invention of the Mosaic web browser and the creation of a high-speed fiber optic computer network.
The guy who pinned the moniker of Internet inventor on Gore? Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.