The Internet shows the importance of government-funded innovation


Did the government invent the Internet? In a polarizing opinion piece published July 22 in The Wall Street Journal, L. Gordon Crovitz (former publisher of that newspaper and so by nature a private sector cheerleader) argues that "it's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet."

However, he doesn't dispute that the history of the Internet is suffused with government funding--that the Advanced Research Projects Agency created the first computer network, that the TCP/IP protocol was invented under a government contract, that Tim Berners-Lee also invented hyperlinks while under contract at the government-funded European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Maybe what Crovitz is getting at is that the consumer-service-rich Internet of today that lets you watch movies, make practically free long-distance calls, network with friends, etc. (etc. is up to your imagination) didn't spring whole cloth from the government.

And in that, he is absolutely correct--but so what? No one disputes that today's consumerized Internet would be impossible were the government in a position to make command-and-control decisions about what goes on it.

The question is was early government funding of the building blocks of today's Internet instrumental in its creation--and given that the facts aren't in dispute, it's hard for me to understand how this is the matter of debate. Of course it was.

Crovitz also ignores the importance of the fact that the Internet's building blocks were made with government money. The private sector on its own would have come up with computer networking, but almost certainly it would have built quality of service into it in order to favor transmission of one company's own network traffic over that of competitors. A private sector network protocol standard, in other words, would probably not have resulted in the Internet as we know it today. Imagine it as AOL on steroids: Every Internet service provider at the center of its own walled garden.

"It's important to understand the history of the Internet because it's too often wrongly cited to justify big government," Crovitz writes--drawing exactly the wrong conclusion. Government-funded research and development permits the private sector to capitalize on the positive externalities generated by it. Privately funded research does not. Getting to today's Internet ultimately required a combination of both sectors, of course--that the private sector has an irreplaceable role isn't something that sane people challenge. The myth is denying the government's key and vital role to creating innovation in the United States. It's important: The facts show it. - Dave