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Who built the internet: the corporation or the state?

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
24th January 2013


Dale Carrico alerted me to this important essay:

“Adam Fish helpfully summarizes libertechian, technoprogressive, Great Man, and peer-to-peer narratives of the creation of the internet.”

Adam Fish indeed discusses the issue and an ongoing debate in the U.S. about ‘who’ created the internet. The different theories reflect different political ideologies he concludes.

In this installment, we’ll feature the debate between corporation and state, i.e. technolibertarianism vs. technoprogressivism.

Adam Fish:

* The Corporations Did It

“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 idiosyncraticallydeclared. 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.

[edit] The State

Despite Crovitz’s best wishes, Taylor’s Xerox PARC Ethernet didn’t become the internet as Slate’s Farhad Manjoo and Time’s Harry McCracken explain. Two days later, Manjoo rebutted Crovitz’s “almost hysterically false” argument. Aligning with given wisdom, Manjoo stated that the internet was financed and created by the US government. Despite being more historically accurate than Crovitz’s argument this statement is also political. In reminding the residents of Roanoke of the government’s role in the founding of the internet, President Obama, according to Manjoo, “argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure.” This argument is progressive, social democratic, or socially liberal—advocating for responsible taxation and the shared burden of national identification, and is therefore a political narrative opposed to the Darwinism of technolibertarianism expounded by the Technology Liberation Front.

The most compelling argument made by Manjoo is a reminder that it was Barran’s packet-switching technologies, the capacity to split-up data, attaching routing directions, send the data, and reconstitute it elsewhere, which is the basis of the internet today and was first put into practice in the US federal government’s ARPAnet. Manjoo explained, “In tech, no one does anything on his own. … in the tech industry, it takes a village.”

Manjoo critiqued Crovitz’s conflation of the internet and the world wide web, his ignorance that Vint Cerf was a federal employee as was his co-creator of TCP/IP Robert Kahn an employee of the Defense Department, his misunderstanding that the Ethernet connects computers to a single not a multiple internetwork, and his mistake in not recognizing that packet-switching technology was developed at RAND, a government funded think tank.

He goes onto defend the role of government in technology saying that it wasn’t bureaucrats who stymied the roll-out of the internet but rather AT&T who rejected Paul Barran’s idea of packet-switching technologies running on their phone lines. Manjoo states, “And that’s why the task fell to the federal government—the Defense Department had to create the Internet because private enterprise refused to.” He concludes: “The Internet, the Web, the microprocessor, GPS, batteries, the electric grid—if you’ve built a thriving company that depends on any of these things, you didn’t get there on your own. Or, as the president once said ‘You didn’t build that.’” Manjoo’s discourse on the origins of the internet can be conceptualized as technoprogressive, aligned as it is with the historical and present US progressive movement, social liberalism, and social Democrats. This view acknowledges the role of the state in funding technology and science while addressing the shared costs and responsibilities of a state-supported networked society. Technoprogress has been theorized by Douglas Rushkoff, Donna Haraway, Mark Dery, James Hughes in the form of “democratic transhumanism,” and Dale Carrico. Hughes and Carrico, for instance, have been affiliated with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology, which forms the technoprogressive answer to the Technology Liberation Front’s technolibertarianism. Carrico says that technoprogressivism “assumes that technoscientific developments can be empowering and emancipatory so long as they are regulated by legitimate democratic and accountable authorities.” Manjoo, and President Obama before him, embodied technoprogressivism by claiming that it was the democratic and regulatory mechanisms, not to mention the US federal funding, that made the internet possible.”

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