Did government invent the Internet?

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.


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