Who Built the Internet?

Obama Was Right: The Government Invented the Internet

Don’t believe the outrageous conservative claim that every tech innovation came from private enterprise.

Earlier this month, President Obama argued that wealthy business people owe some of their success to the government’s investment in education and basic infrastructure. He cited roads, bridges, and schools. Then he singled out the most clear-cut example of how government investment can spark huge business opportunities: the Internet.

“The Internet didn’t get invented on its own,” Obama said. “Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

Until recently this wouldn’t have been a controversial statement. Everyone in the tech world knows that the Internet got its start in the 1960s, when a team of computing pioneers at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency designed and deployed ARPANET, the first computer network that used “packet switching”—a communications system that splits up data and sends it across multiple paths toward its destination, which is the basic design of today’s Internet. According to most accounts, researchers working on ARPANET created many of the Internet’s defining features, including TCP/IP, the protocol on which today’s network operates. In the 1980s, they strung together various government and university networks together using TCP/IP—thus creating a single worldwide network, the Internet.

Seeding Networks: the Federal Role

Many federal agencies have contributed to the development of networking, but the work of ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, and NSF, the National Science Foundation, stands out. The ARPANET established the feasibility of an efficient packet-switching network (a controversial idea at the time), and provided a technology development testbed. When it became clear that the network was a valuable asset for ARPA research contractors, NSF broadened participation with CSNET, a network connecting university and other computer scientists. CSNET was followed by NSFNET, which connected a much wider community of users. There has been a significant return to the organizations that participated in this work, and much greater return to the society. This article will look at these networks and their costs and benefits, but first let’s look at some government-sponsored prehistory.

Government spending: seeding the Internet cost $124.5 million, Morse’s telegraph $30 thousand

Steve Crocker, Internet pioneer and current chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, has summed up the roles of government and industry in an excellent article. He explains why the Internet could not have been created by private industry without government’s help and also points out that once the initial infrastructure was in place and its feasibility demonstrated, it was vital for industry to step in and develop products, software and services.

That initial infrastructure began with research and theory leading to the ARPANet, which demonstrated the feasibility of a large scale network. Critical mass and training were achieved when the government funded the spread of networking to universities through CSNET for computer science departments, the National Science Foundation NSFNet for connecting all US colleges and universities and the NSF International Connections program, which brought in university and research networks in 28 nations, most of which were in the developing world.

In a 1996 Communications of the ACM article Seeding Networks: the Federal Role, I documented the cost of that government effort. The ARPAnet cost $25 million, CSNET $5 million, the NSFNET backbone $57.9 million, connecting universities to the backbone $30 million, and the NSF International connections program $6.6 million. The US taxpayer got a pretty good return on an investment of $124.5 million.

The US government investment that led to the Internet paid a handsome return, but it was not the first federal networking investment. As we see here, in 1843, the US Congress appropriated $30,000 for the construction of a line of electro-magnetic telegraphs under the supervision of Professor Samuel F. B. Morse in order “to test the capacity and usefulness” of the system he invented. He used the money to construct a 37 mile telegraph connection between Washington and Baltimore, and, indeed, it turned out to be useful. That was a pretty good investment too.

Of course it is not only the US Government. Donald Davies was at the National Physical Lab in England when he coined the term “packet switching” and built an early test network and Tim Berners Lee was working at CERN, which was funded by 20 European governments and the European Union, when he invented the Web.

Government Did Invent the Internet, But the Market Made It Glorious

The internet indeed began as a typical government program, the ARPANET, designed to share mainframe computing power and to establish a secure military communications network.

Of course the designers could not have foreseen what the (commercial) internet has become. Still, this reality has important implications for how the internet works — and explains why there are so many roadblocks in the continued development of online technologies. It is only thanks to market participants that the internet became something other than a typical government program: inefficient, overcapitalized, and not directed toward socially useful purposes.

In fact, the role of the government in the creation of the internet is often understated.

The internet owes its very existence to the state and to state funding. The story begins with ARPA, created in 1957 in response to the Soviets’ launch of Sputnik and established to research the efficient use of computers for civilian and military applications.