The Government Didn’t Invent The Internet
When American political debate turns to the relationship between private enterprise and the government our friends on the left are fond of reciting all the private sector enterprises that wouldn’t exist or wouldn’t be possible without the government. Why, even the very internet where so much of the debate takes place these days was the result not of private sector innovation and invention but of strategic government investment made by forward-thinking politicians and bureaucrats.
The problem? That’s utter bunk. In the Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz explains that the origins of the internet are much more complex, and firmly rooted in the private sector:
If the government didn’t invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet’s backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.
But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today.
According to a book about Xerox PARC, “Dealers of Lightning” (by Michael Hiltzik), its top researchers realized they couldn’t wait for the government to connect different networks, so would have to do it themselves. “We have a more immediate problem than they do,” Robert Metcalfe told his colleague John Shoch in 1973. “We have more networks than they do.” Mr. Shoch later recalled that ARPA staffers “were working under government funding and university contracts. They had contract administrators . . . and all that slow, lugubrious behavior to contend with.”
So having created the Internet, why didn’t Xerox become the biggest company in the world? The answer explains the disconnect between a government-led view of business and how innovation actually happens.
Executives at Xerox headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., were focused on selling copiers. From their standpoint, the Ethernet was important only so that people in an office could link computers to share a copier. Then, in 1979, Steve Jobs negotiated an agreement whereby Xerox’s venture-capital division invested $1 million in Apple, with the requirement that Jobs get a full briefing on all the Xerox PARC innovations. “They just had no idea what they had,” Jobs later said, after launching hugely profitable Apple computers using concepts developed by Xerox.
Xerox’s copier business was lucrative for decades, but the company eventually had years of losses during the digital revolution. Xerox managers can console themselves that it’s rare for a company to make the transition from one technology era to another.
As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Blogger Brian Carnell wrote in 1999: “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. . . . In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”
In summary, the government had a small role in developing some of the technologies which led to the internet, but it was the private sector that cut through he bureaucratic delays and made the internet into what we know it as today.Tags: al gore, government, internet, private sector