Government Did Not Develop the Internet

by William Yeatman on October 11, 2010

in Features

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Proponents of green energy subsidies[1] are quick to claim that the U.S. government created the internet as we know it. Their reasoning is as follows: If only Uncle Sam would do for solar power what it did for the internet, then we could achieve the clean energy breakthrough that will deliver America to a carbon-free energy future.

This line of thinking is misguided, because it conflates “research” and “development.”

“Research” is the “diligent  and  systematic  inquiry  or  investigation  into  a  subject  in  order  to  discover  or  revise  facts,  theories,  applications,  etc,” according to dictionary.com. This process of discovery is amenable to top-down control. A priori, a research team sets out to investigate a particular phenomenon. “Development,” however, is different. This is the process by which a technology becomes valued by consumers. It is recalcitrant to top-down controls; rather, it is a function of tinkering by myriad actors.

To put it another way, government research created the internet, but it took many, many smart, opportunistic people to develop the internet.

Consider a brief history that serves to clarify my point. From 1965-1989, the US military and the National Science Foundation created the internet. In 1989, a private telecommunications company, MCI, gained commercial rights to use the internet. Then, “During the 1990s, it was estimated that the Internet grew by 100 percent per year, with a brief period of explosive growth in 1996 and 1997. This growth is often attributed to the lack of central administration, which allows organic growth of the network, as well as the non-proprietary open nature of the Internet protocols, which encourages vendor interoperability and prevents any one company from exerting too much control over the network.” (from Wikipedia)

So, government had zero to do with commercializing internet. Indeed, the internet grew by leaps and bounds only after it was loosened from the grip of the state.

Green energy enthusiasts claim that government can do R&D, and they point to the internet as evidence for this assertion. They are mistaken. While it’s debatable whether government should do the “R,” it is irrefutable that government can’t do the “D.”


[1] Most recently, the much-ballyhooed “post partisan” climate plan released today by the Breakthrough Institute, the Brookings Institute and the American Enterprise Institute.

Lakenya Halaas October 19, 2010 at 4:16 pm

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