Untruths at the origins of the Internet

Jul 24, 2012

FORTUNE -- The Wall Street Journal has always had a problem. When people refer to it, it's often hard to know whether they are naming one of the best publications in the world, or one of the worst. Unless they clarify, we can't know whether they mean the news pages, which are filled with quality articles written by hardworking journalists who care about getting the facts right, or the opinion pages, which are, well, something else.

The opinion pages can be wrong, very wrong. And they couldn't have been more wrong than in this item about the Internet and how the government didn't create it after all.  For such a short item, the number of problems with it is rather astonishing, but not as astonishing as how severe they are. It was written by L. Gordon Crovitz, the Journal's esteemed former publisher.

Crovitz begins with the right-wing talking point du jour, that when President Obama said "you didn't build that" in a recent speech to small-business owners, he meant the small businesses themselves. Of course, it's clear he was referring to government infrastructure such as roads and bridges, as well as the Internet. Crovitz employs the common sophist's technique of leaving out the parts of the speech that disprove his argument. (Ask yourself what motive Obama could possibly have for telling small-business owners that they weren't primarily responsible for their own successes.)

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Crovitz then tries to shoot down Obama's assertion that "the Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet." Crovitz called this "an urban legend." In fact, it's well-established, easily discovered truth (though Obama's language was a bit off here -- the government didn't develop the Internet "so that" people could make money from it. But that's what ultimately happened). Crovitz described the developments in communications in the 1960s -- connecting different computer networks together into one big one -- as an attempt to build a "world-wide web." Given the quotation marks he puts around that construction, and the way it was punctuated, he could be using it as a rhetorical device, not actually referring to the World Wide Web, which is not the same thing as the Internet, and was invented many years later. But what he writes immediately after this makes it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt.

He writes that the federal government "was involved, modestly" in the creation of the Internet through its development of the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network -- ARPAnet. Given that ARPAnet was created with a new technology on which the Internet was built -- large-scale packet-switching -- it's hard to call its contribution "modest." It was absolutely essential. APRAnet begat the Internet. The government was also essential to the creation of TCP/IP, the protocol that governs how Internet data is recognized and routed among various individual networks. It was developed by Vinton Cerf, with financing from the government. It was first adopted by the Defense Department. Crovitz doesn't mention any of this. Then he asserts that Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web,  "gets credit for hyperlinks." False. Berners-Lee certainly made use of hyperlinks in developing his world-changing invention, but hyperlinks already existed. And by the way, Berners-Lee's work was financed by European governments. CERN, where he did the work, is a state-sponsored international research organization.

Having given some credit to both Cerf and Berners-Lee (leaving our their government sponsorship), Crovitz asserts that "full credit" for the Internet goes to Xerox (xrx) PARC, the corporate research lab where Ethernet was invented. Ethernet was developed, he writes, "to link different computer networks." This is so basic an error, it's hard to understand how it got printed. Ethernet was indeed devised by Xerox, but to connect individual computers together in a single network, and to printers and other peripheral devices, not to connect networks together. Ethernet by itself isn't an Internet technology at all. Of course, there is all kinds interplay among various related technological developments, and they all build off each other, but Ethernet was invented for use in local area networks, period.

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Nonetheless, Crovitz describes Xerox with "having created the Internet." It's true that some of the technologies that we use when surfing the Net were developed there, including the graphical user interface. But Crovitz here goes off the rails entirely, describing how Steve Jobs took what he learned from Xerox and built Apple (aapl) into a powerhouse. This is somehow supposed to reveal "the disconnect between a government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens." But he doesn't connect this disconnect to reality at all. Steve Jobs building Apple using some Xerox PARC-generated technologies has nothing to do with the development of the Internet.

Crovitz concludes by noting that the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, just in time for private enterprise to turn it into what we all know of as "the Internet" today -- one of mankind's most astonishing technological developments and a money-making machine. Though of course he doesn't say so, this does in fact show "how innovation actually happens" -- sometimes: the government pours money and engineering talent into a research project, the results of which are then unleashed into the marketplace, where they are exploited and further developed by commercial interests. It happens with pharmaceuticals, with materials science, and with all kinds of other endeavors. And when it goes right, as it did with the Internet, everybody wins.

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