Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

Obama may have gaffed, neoliberal assistant editors at Fox News and the Republican National Committee, exploitatively edited, repurposed, and exaggerated the speech, but it was Wall Street Journal writer L. Gordon Crovitz who mistook the misedits as evidence for US executive branch internet revisionism. Crovitz, ex-publisher of the Journal, ex-executive at Dow Jones, and social media start-up entrepreneur, attacked President Obama’s statement that the internet was funded and engineered by the federal government. “It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet,” he idiosyncratically declared. The crux of Crovitz’s argument was focused on Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPAnet, a US DAPRA project that connected computer networks to computer networks. Taylor, according to Crovitz, stated that this proto-internet, “was not an Internet.” And therefore, most importantly for Crovitz, this meant that President Obama was dead wrong, Taylor, a federal employee at this time did not help to invent the internet. The internet was not made by engineers paid by public but private hands. Crovitz’s twist on the accepted story is that Taylor later made a different internet, ethernet, at Xerox PARC where we worked after DARPA. And it was Ethernet that became the internet.

However, Ethernet connects computers to computers, not computer networks to computer networks like APRAnet. Ethernet was invented at a corporation, Xerox PARC, where Robert Taylor was working after developing APRAnet for the US federal government. Thus, it was not the US federals but private business, namely Xerox PARC with a later incarnation of Taylor, that came up with what became the internet. The government? “Bureaucrats,” according to Crovitz, harassed Xerox PARC’s engineers.

Crovitz positions media corporations as responsible for and the rightful heirs of the internet. This is technolibertarianism, the belief that private individuals with unfettered access to technologies working out their negative liberties and economic self-interest is not only legal and just brings about economic prosperity for the most. Technolibertarianism is most vigorously defended and self-labelled by the Technology Liberation Front (TFL), a blogging think tank with connections to the best funded conservative think tanks: Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, Reason Foundation, TechFreedom, Mercatus Center and other bastions of neoliberal information policy construction, debate, and propagation. Adam Thierer who at FTL is the primary chronicler of technolibertarian self-referentiality calls Crovitz his “favorite technology policy columnist,” couldn’t come to his mentor’s defence on this experimental revamping of internet history around a privately employed Taylor, Ethernet, and PARC but he has much to say about technolibertarianism.

“Cyber-libertarians believe true “Internet freedom” is freedom from state action; not freedom for the State to reorder our affairs to supposedly make certain people or groups better off or to improve some amorphous “public interest”—an all-to convenient facade behind which unaccountable elites can impose their will on the rest of us.” –Adam Thierer

Crovitz is attempting to reengineer the history of the internet in order to have an origin story more in line with the technolibertarianism advanced by Thierer. If the internet is not made by the state then the state has no right to manage it. If it is made by corporations then corporations are the rightful heirs to the internet. In the following posts I will introduce how another depiction of the origin of the internet carries its own ideology despite its historical accuracy.

[This is a part of a six part blog on four debates about the origins of the internet. Please see all six posts here.]

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

One thought on “Who Built the Internet? Corporations! (Part 2)

  1. I’m stunned that this is a debate at all, but that’s what happens when you start to take a sleazy propaganda organ like the WSJ seriously. This isn’t ancient history, the participants are mostly all still alive and the facts are readily available, and the story is not that complicated.

    The Internet grew out of a research culture that spanned government (ARPA and other agencies), universities (MIT, Stanford and others), contract research labs (SRI, BBN) and a few industry laboratories (Xerox PARC, AT&T, and others). Ideas and people crossed the boundaries of these organizations pretty freely. A few visionaries set the direction, such as JCR Licklider, who went from ARPA to BBN to MIT. This culture had its roots in WW II and Cold War defense research.

    If your reduce this to the stupid binary question of whether it was “government” or “industry” that was responsible, the answer would clearly be government, but if you frame things that way you are already losing.

    It’s also worth noting that the industry labs who participated in this effort were not, on the whole, in pursuit of profit. AT&T and Xerox both enjoyed monopoly status and thus had the freedom to fund actual research, meaning work on things that could not be justified by pointing to next quarter’s balance sheet.

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