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The Rise of the Internet

For some of these innovations, it is at least conceivable that a private firm could have stumbled upon the key breakthrough without government research support. The Internet, however, is the clearest example of a technology that the private sector could not have produced on its own.

To help us imagine what a private sector created Internet would have looked like, Nathan Newman, in his book, Net Loss, relates the beginnings of the railroad industry. The fierce competition to gain control of a larger share of the transportation business, he writes, led railroad companies to intentionally lay track of different gauges than their competitors, forcing merchants to transfer cargo from one train to another train if they chose an alternate route. Similarly, “The Internet is so ubiquitous now that it is hard to conceive of a world where we would need to access different software and different phone numbers to obtain the different kinds of services we might want, but that was the world being constructed by private industry.”(68) The story of the Internet is not just an account of its conception by government scientists. It is also the story of the timely interventions that kept the Internet accessible to all, exponentially increasing its value.

The idea for the Internet, like the personal computer, came from the heads of the information technology department of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), J.C.R. Licklider and Robert Taylor. The actual mechanism, however, was conceived of by a researcher at RAND, the think tank of the U.S. Army. Paul Baran imagined an alternative to the phone network in which, instead of a central switchboard routing callers to their destinations, each user would be connected to its neighbors and they to theirs, forming a decentralized network. RAND pitched the idea to the Air Force, which then asked AT&T to build the network. AT&T, however, refused to build it because they did not want to share the circuit maps the network would require. This was only the first instance where a private firm hindered the Internet’s development because the new technology threatened its existing business.

When AT&T passed, RAND encouraged the state-run British Post Office to demonstrate the technology, which, within a year, implemented it successfully. DARPA then funded network connections to link UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara and the University of Utah, and asked IBM to build the first network compatible personal computer. Once again, IBM refused, seeing a threat to its mainframe business. So, DARPA hired BBN, an organization of former MIT faculty and students. By October 1972, when DARPA demonstrated it to the public, there were 29 nodes on the network, stretching from Los Angeles to Boston.

From there, the Internet grew rapidly with crucial assistance from the government along the way. DARPA funded the creation of the TCP/IP internet protocol and an addition to the UNIX operating system that ensured that all network computers would be able to communicate with each other. BBN invented e-mail and a director at DARPA wrote the first e-mail program. And the National Science Foundation spent millions to develop the first high-speed networks and connect a third of the country’s universities, increasing the number of websites from ten thousand in 1988 to a hundred thousand a year later. Perhaps most importantly, when private firms like AOL, WorldCom and Microsoft threatened to break the Internet into separate proprietary networks, the government’s involvement helped keep it together. Sources:

Abbate, Janet. Inventing the Internet. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2000.

Newman, Nathan. “How the Federal Government Created the Internet, and How the Internet is Threatened by the Government’s Withdrawal.” In Net Loss, 41-82. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.

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