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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Yes, Government Researchers Really Did Invent the Internet

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"It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet," writes Gordon Crovitz in an opinion piece in today's Wall Street Journal. Most histories cite the Pentagon-backed ARPANet as the Internet's immediate predecessor, but that view undersells the importance of research conducted at Xerox PARC labs in the 1970s, claims Crovitz. In fact, Crovitz implies that, if anything, government intervention gummed up the natural process of laissez faire innovation. "The Internet was fully privatized in 1995," says Crovitz, "just as the commercial Web began to boom." The implication is clear: the Internet could only become the world-changing force it is today once big government got out of the way.

But 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. (Robert Metcalfe, a researcher at Xerox PARC who co-invented the Ethernet protocol, today tweeted tongue-in-cheek "Is it possible I invented the whole damn Internet?")

The most important part of what we now know of as the Internet is the TCP/IP protocol, which was invented by Vincent Cerf and Robert Kahn. Crovitz mentions TCP/IP, but only in passing, calling it (correctly) "the Internet's backbone." He fails to mention that Cerf and Kahn developed TCP/IP while working on a government grant.

Other commenters, including Timothy B. Lee at Ars Technica and veteran technology reporter Steve Wildstrom, have noted that Crovitz's misunderstandings run deep. He also manages to confuse the World Wide Web (incidentally, invented by Tim Berners Lee while working at CERN, a government-funded research laboratory) with hyperlinks, and an internet—a link between two computers—with THE Internet.

But perhaps the most damning rebuttal comes from Michael Hiltzik, the author "Dealers of Lightning," a history of Xerox PARC that Crovitz uses as his main source for material. "While I'm gratified in a sense that he cites my book," writes Hiltzik, "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 truth, no private company would have been capable of developing a project like the Internet, which required years of R&D efforts spread out over scores of far-flung agencies, and which began to take off only after decades of investment. Visionary infrastructure projects such as this are part of what has allowed our economy to grow so much in the past century. Today's op-ed is just one sad indicator of how we seem to be losing our appetite for this kind of ambition.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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