As someone who has been working with the Internet since close to the beginning, I almost blew a gasket yesterday when I read an article in the Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz claiming that “Contrary to legend, it wasn’t the federal government” who invented the Internet. The article was meant as a slap against Obama, who in a speech said “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.”
It isn’t just that the premise of the article is wrong. It is so full of misinformation, ignorance, and baldfaced lies, it doesn’t make any sense at all. The article even gets simple facts wrong, like the location of the headquarters of Xerox. Or it claims that the Internet was born when Xerox PARC developed the Ethernet protocol to link different computer networks. Idiots! Ethernet is a computer network, not a way to link networks. Or that Apple took this technology because Xerox “had no idea what they had”. Indeed, Apple did borrow technology from Xerox PARC, but that technology was the graphical user interface, not anything related to networking or the Internet.
Luckily, the response from the tech community was swift. For example, Crovitz quotes Michael Hiltzik’s book about Xerox PARC, but Hiltzik shot back:
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.
Hiltzik flatly says that without the government, the Internet “could not have come into existence”:
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. Luckily for us, a far-sighted government agency prevailed.
Other tech media was even more damning. According to an article in Salon:
The accepted wisdom is correct. The government created the Internet. But because the Wall Street Journal is devoted to printing plausible-sounding lies designed to appeal to its anti-government readership, they printed a column by Gordon Crovitz this week claiming that the government did not invent the Internet, because governments can’t invent anything useful, ever, and it was the wonderful private sector that did all the work.
Crovitz’s entire yarn is almost hysterically false. He gets basic history wrong, he gets the Internet’s defining technologies wrong, and, most importantly, he misses the important interplay between public and private funds that has been necessary for all great modern technological advances.
Slate also points out that Crovitz is lying:
Other times, Crovitz strays into what seems like intentional intellectual dishonesty. He mentions offhandedly that “Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol,” but he skips over both the gravity of this development and the government’s role in it. TCP/IP is the Internet’s defining language, the only reason that any two computers, anywhere, can send a message to one another. In this way, TCP/IP is the Internet. What’s more, Crovitz neglects to mention that when Cerf created TCP/IP, he did so with Robert Kahn, who was an employee of the Defense Department, and that both of them were working under funding from the government.
Even the normally staid Scientific American says “Crovitz’s story is based on a profound misunderstanding of not only history, but technology.”
But as we now know, facts don’t seem to matter any more. Fox News is repeating the lie made by their sister publication (Murdoch’s News Corp owns both the Wall Street Journal and Fox News). I’m sure the lie that the private sector invented the Internet will be repeated ad nauseam by conservative outlets, just like they repeated the lie that Al Gore said he invented the Internet, until people believed he said it.