The Internet? We Built That
Who created the Internet and why should we care? These questions, so often raised during the Bush-Gore election in 2000, have found their way back into the political debate this season — starting with one of the most cited texts of the preconvention campaign, Obama’s so-called “you didn’t build that” speech. “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama argued, in the lines that followed his supposed gaffe. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.” In other words: business uses the Internet, but government made it happen.
About a week after Obama’s speech, The Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Crovitz took on those lines from Obama’s speech, claiming it was an “urban legend” that the government built the Internet. Credit for the early networking innovations, Crovitz argued, belonged to private-sector companies like Xerox and Apple. It was no accident, he observed, that the Net languished in relative obscurity for two decades until private corporations and venture capitalists turned their focus to it.
So what had once seemed to be a relatively stable narrative grounding has in recent months erupted with all sorts of political tremors. For most of the past two decades, the story of the Internet’s origins followed a fairly standardized plot: the Internet was originally developed by computer scientists whose research was heavily financed by the federal government, most notably through Darpa, the research arm of the Defense Department. Some narratives emphasized the decentralized network architecture designed by Paul Baran to survive a nuclear strike; others gave credit to the British programmer Tim Berners-Lee, whose World Wide Web gave the Internet a more accessible hypertextual layer. And of course there were all those Al Gore jokes.
The renewed political stakes in the details of this origin story are obvious. If you believe Big Government built the most important communications platform of our time, then that success is a powerful riposte to all the standard claims about bureaucratic inefficiencies and incompetence. Government might be able to out-innovate the private sector, given the right focus and commitment (and freedom from being beholden to stockholders). But if you believe that the Internet’s success is largely attributable to the private sector, all the usual libertarian homilies remain untarnished.
So was the Internet created by Big Government or Big Capital? The answer is: Neither. This is what’s most notable about the debate over the Net’s origins: it misses the most interesting part of the story.