Did government invent the Internet?

by on August 30, 2005 at 6:05 am in Web/Tech | Permalink

Here is a useful corrective:

Back in the mid-1980s the Internet was the sole province of universities and government institutions. Private individuals who just wanted to send e-mail over the Internet would have had a hard time doing so.

But that doesn’t mean there weren’t vibrant computer networks. In fact there were tens of thousands of Bulletin Board Systems around the country that were relatively cheap to join and offered e-mail, files, discussion forums and a whole host of things that are now largely on the web; although some remnants of this BBS culture still exist.

The main problem with the BBS system was a lack of standards for interconnection. As the 1990s approached and computers became more powerful and modems supported more bandwidth there were several competing proposals for graphical interconnection standards, but those were wiped out by the Internet tsunami.

It is interesting, given [Barbara] Ehrenreich’s view that the Internet was an innovation made possible by the government, that prior to the early 1990s almost nobody outside of governments and universities had home access to the Internet while several million had logged on to a BBS at one point or another. What caused the change? Something Ehrenreich and her left/liberal friends usually fight tooth and nail — privatization. The floodgates of the Internet came open only after key resources became privatized and companies and individuals could operate on the Internet. For much of its existence, commercial activity on the Internet had been forbidden. The removal of that barrier is primarily responsible for the Internet we have today, where both anarchists and Abercrombie and Fitch use the web to broadcast their respective messages.

The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished with almost no added benefit other than to the military and academia. In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.

So can we interpret the history of the Internet in largely laissez-fiare terms?  Well, uniform standards are useful, the U.S. had better telecommunications policy than most other countries (including a system of managed competition), and local phone calls were set at price zero.  All of these helped the Internet, if you have other interventions in mind add them to the comments.  It is nonetheless correct that private initiative made the Internet what it is.

Here is the link.

spencer August 30, 2005 at 8:30 am

Isn’t this fairly typical of developments in our mixed economy.
The governemnt makes many of the investments in the very early stages
when it is not clear what the payoff will be and how
long it will take to materalize.

Once the development gets past these early stages where the
the returns are unclear the private sector moves in and
takes the develoment to its final stages.

djlicious August 30, 2005 at 9:48 am

Isn’t this kind of a chicken-egg thing? Without the government’s initial investment in the research and creation of standards there would not have been a viable universal network in which private entities could invest, but without that investment the internet would be nothing more than a set of standards.

So it hardly follows that “[t]he Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government.” After all hasn’t it literally taken an act of congress to set HDTV standards?

Xmas August 30, 2005 at 10:13 am

You really need to look at the timelines of things even beyond the BBSs

AOL and Prodigy were increasing their user base before the Internet became commercial.

Macneil August 30, 2005 at 10:31 am

It should be noted that the research oriented around the Internet wasn’t at all done to make The Internet as we know it today.

It was a system brought on from the cold war so that large governmental data centers over the country would still be up even if an entire city was leveled.

So, while it’s true that private enterprise helped to “mass produce” the Internet, it’s the government-funded research that started it all. (And, today, Bush seems to not understand how important it is economically to fund high-risk research.)

Constant August 30, 2005 at 11:40 am

As I understand it a lot of standards are developed without government intervention. Some of the comments here have stated or implied that it is impossible or very difficult for the market to come up with standards, that standards must be established by government or they will never be established at all. I think this is false.

Since IP happened to already be there, and simce some infrastructure happened to be there, there was good reason for private parties to build off of the IP internetwork. Similarly, if people build new roads, chances are they will build them to connect to existing roads. Suppose for a moment that people would have developed an inter-network with a common protocol regardless of what the government did. If that were the case, then given that the government had its IP and the physical equipment in place, then given that the IP was pretty good as it was, people had a good reason to glom onto that. Why reinvent the wheel?

That people use a particular standard is an indication that they need a standard, but is not much of an indication that they need that particular standard.

Josh August 30, 2005 at 1:32 pm

I thought Al Gore invented the internet. ;)

Tylerh August 30, 2005 at 3:36 pm

The heart of the what makes the ‘net as we know it possible, the Internet Protocol (IP), is a direct result of a government funding. Given that IP is the essence of a public good, (you can think of it as “law” if governning the interaction of computers rather than people if that makes you feel better) this is appropriate. Most of the applications associated with IP use when it was winning the standards battle (FTP, smtp, DNS, BIND, Apache’s predecessor etc ) also came from the public sector, typically computer science departments.

Th “left” version of events is far closer to what actually took place in the tech trenches than what Tyler is pushing in the original post. Internet means: that which uses the IP protocol. All sorts of proprietary stuff throught the late 90s was still being pushed by various companies as an alternative to IP (eg Novell’s proprietary standard). And it all lost out to the technically superior government-funded version.

The proprietary vendors’ loss to the publicly funded research effort is hardly surprising: IP is all about getting previously incompatible systems to talk nice to each other, so the protocol that gets to evolve in the most heterogenous, open environment, with the least legal restrictions on testing and developemnt, has an immense adavantage. ATT and it’s ilk could not begin to approach the the collective dieversity and talent of the nation’s comp sci departments.

As for the BBSs — they were the CULTURAL antecedent of today’s blogosphere, but technically they lost. Pure and simple. When was the last time anyone used Kermit? How many sysops still use their serial port for networking?

This is not to say networking protocols must evolve in the public domain to be useful. A fine example of private setctor development is Ethernet, which started life as a memo from Bob Metcalfe to his boss at Xerox PARC in 1973, and continues to develop three decades later.
http://inventors.about.com/library/weekly/aa111598.htm

But the US Government, and DARPA in particular, deserves the credit for funding the development of the internet as we know and love.

Tim August 30, 2005 at 5:13 pm

Isn’t everyone forgetting the obvious?

Computers first became cheap in the mid 1990s.

We could have privatized the internet all we wanted in the 1970s and it wouldn’t have made a whit of difference. Very few people could afford the hardware, and the technology was still so immature in the late 80s that it was a painful experience trying to do anything useful. Ever sit around hours waiting for a 300 baud modem to download a smallish program from a BBS only to find that the program didn’t even work in the end? I did. It wasn’t much fun.

Separate the influence of maturing technology from the effects of privation and you will have a much stronger argument.

Scott Wood August 30, 2005 at 9:25 pm

It seems to me that the most accurate one paragraph history of this issue is: Once reasonably inexpensive PC’s became sufficiently common and powerful enough to handle the demands of networking, and enough people became sufficiently sophisticated to want to network their computers, a networking standard sufficiently robust and convenient for time and the forseseeable future emerged. TCP/IP had the great benefit of being in the public domain and well tested, so it ended up winninng. Were it not there, something else would have emerged, albeit almost assuredly at greater cost and more time.

You can put what spin you want on that story, but it seems highly implausible to me to think that what we now refer to as the Internet wouldn’t largely exist even had TCP/IP not been available as a public domain gift from the Defense Department. At the same time, it also seems highly implausible that we would have had as speedy a path to it.

FWIW, it also seems plausible that we would have a superior mechanism by now had we not, in the 90′s, chosen to adopt a 30 year old standard, but I would be hard pressed to attack TCP/IP, or the path of Internet development, on that score.

John Berresford August 30, 2005 at 10:05 pm

The Internet exists, in part, because of five government policies: (1) the decision to build its predecessors (ARPANET et al., started with Ike); (2) the decision to let you own your own terminal (personal computer) and connect it to the phone network (FCC decisions 1968-1975 over Ma Bell’s opposition); (3) open entry into long distance (FCC decisions in the 1970s over Ma Bell’s opposition made all that backbone possible); (4) allowing ISPs to use phone lines (FCC Computer decisions in the 1970s over Ma Bell’s opposition); and (5) FCC prohibiting Bell from charging 8 cents per minute for Internet use of her phone lines (1995-1996).

ivan August 31, 2005 at 4:24 am

As Tyler Cowen implies this is a “usefull corrective” on the view that without government we would not have an internet. The important thing here is that the internet only took off when it was privatized. This is not too surprising: the market really is best to find out what users and consumers want. No government policy can improve on that. Look for instance at Minitel in France. It only became popular when the French started to use it for other purposes then those for which it was build for by the government. And it could not stand up against the onslaught from the privatized internet. The other question is: who can be more innovative? And here matters are not so clear. One can argue that the real succes of the internet began with the world wide web. And the world wide web was not invented by a private company under pressure to compete but at a public institution. Indeed, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory. So a usefull corrective yes, but not the definitive answer.

botboy September 1, 2005 at 12:10 am

Constant: “Things like … Perl … will not be widely used without government backing them up all the way. …… Inventions like … Perl cannot be developed in the first place without massive government assistance.”

From whom, the US Department of Larry Wall?

Wait, I just got to the line about monkeys and human volunteers… Okay, you had me there for a moment, Constant. That was good.

ivan: “who can be more innovative? … One can argue that the real succes of the internet began with the WWW. And the WWW was not invented by a private company under pressure to compete but at a public institution. Indeed, Tim Berners-Lee invented the WWW while working at CERN…”

As an inventor I always hate saying this, but invention’s not all it’s cracked up to be…

True, TBL invented the WWW at CERN, but MarcA brought it out of the lab and into the mainstream with Mosaic/Netscape. Have you ever used one of the early web browsers? No, as much as I admire TBL’s vision, I think that you have to credit the growth of the web as we know it not to him but to his offspring. (And that’s no small honor, either.)

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