WSJ's Crovitz: “Creating The Internet” And Getting Everything Wrong

The Wall Street Journal's Gordon Crovitz jumped on the “you didn't build that” distortion bandwagon yesterday, attacking President Obama for citing the “government research” that “created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.” To rebut the president, Crovitz offered a lengthy response to a point Obama never made, made a wealth of assertions that (according to his own sources) were wrong, and in the end actually ended up proving the point the president did make: that government-funded projects contribute to success in private enterprise.

First, let's take a look at what Obama said:

OBAMA: If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life.  Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you've got a business -- you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don't do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

Now here's Crovitz's take on Obama's (selectively edited) comments:

A telling moment in the presidential race came recently when Barack Obama said: “If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen.” He justified elevating bureaucrats over entrepreneurs by referring to bridges and roads, adding: “The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.”

It's an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens--and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.

It's a myth! And had Obama said that “the government launched the Internet,” he would have been guilty of propagating that myth. Fortunately, he didn't say that. Nonetheless, Crovitz took it upon himself to correct the president on who “invented” the internet -- Xerox, not the government:

The federal government was involved, modestly, via the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency Network. Its goal was not maintaining communications during a nuclear attack, and it didn't build the Internet. Robert Taylor, who ran the ARPA program in the 1960s, sent an email to fellow technologists in 2004 setting the record straight: “The creation of the Arpanet was not motivated by considerations of war. The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.”

If the government didn't invent the Internet, who did? Vinton Cerf developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone, and Tim Berners-Lee gets credit for hyperlinks.

But full credit goes to the company where Mr. Taylor worked after leaving ARPA: Xerox. It was at the Xerox PARC labs in Silicon Valley in the 1970s that the Ethernet was developed to link different computer networks. Researchers there also developed the first personal computer (the Xerox Alto) and the graphical user interface that still drives computer usage today.

To back this up, Crovitz cited Michael Hiltzik's book Dealers Of Lightning. Hiltzik responded to Crovitz's column this morning and said that Crovitz got everything completely wrong:

And while I'm gratified in a sense that he cites my book about Xerox PARC, “Dealers of Lightning,” to support his case, it's my duty to point out that he's wrong. My book bolsters, not contradicts, the argument that the Internet had its roots in the ARPANet, a government project. So let's look at where Crovitz goes awry.

First, he quotes Robert Taylor, who funded the ARPANet as a top official at the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, as stating, “The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.” (Taylor eventually moved to Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center, where he oversaw the invention of the personal computer, and continued promoting research into networking.)

But Crovitz confuses AN internet with THE Internet. Taylor was citing a technical definition of “internet” in his statement. But I know Bob Taylor, Bob Taylor is a friend of mine, and I think I can say without fear of contradiction that he fully endorses the idea as a point of personal pride that the government-funded ARPANet was very much the precursor of the Internet as we know it today.

There is a legitimate question as to when “the internet” as we come to know it today first appeared on the scene. But, again, that's not what Obama was talking about. He said that government research led to the internet's creation. The government-created Arpanet, while not “the internet,” was what made the internet possible in that it was the basis from which all the tech legends lionized by Crovitz did their innovating.

Indeed, Robert Taylor -- who, in Crovitz's retelling gets “full credit” for creating the internet -- said as much. Crovitz quoted a 2004 email in which Taylor wrote: “The Arpanet was not an Internet. An Internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.” Here's the part of that email Crovitz left out: “The ARPAnet was not an internet.  An internet is a connection between two or more computer networks.  The ARPAnet, with help from thousands of people, slowly evolved into the Internet.  Without the ARPAnet, the Internet would have been a much longer time in coming.

So that's pretty dishonest of Crovitz.

And what about Vinton Cerf, who, with Robert Kahn, “developed the TCP/IP protocol, the Internet's backbone?” When Cerf and Kahn released their paper explaining the TCP/IP protocol, they made sure to note that the “research reported in this paper was supported in part by the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense.” Kahn was working for ARPA at the time, and in 2008 he told Vanity Fair that “a place like ARPA is so important” because private companies weren't going to fund the early research because it didn't present “a business opportunity.”

Cerf, for his part, specifically credited the Arpanet when discussing the TCP:

The Arpanet demonstrated the effectiveness of packet switching [breaking down data into discrete chunks and then reassembling it]. And it demonstrated that it was possible to get heterogeneous computers to talk to each other through a single common packet-switched net. What Bob Kahn and I did was to demonstrate that with a different set of protocols you could get an infinite number of -- well, infinite is not true, but an arbitrarily large number of -- different heterogeneous packet-switched nets to interconnect with each other as if it was all one big giant network. TCP is the thing that makes the Internet the Internet.

You get the point: The people Crovitz credited for “creating the internet” are all on record saying how very important the government-created Arpanet was to their research. And that's exactly the point Obama was making. Nonetheless, Crovtiz concluded:

It's important to understand the history of the Internet because it's too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It's also important to recognize that building great technology businesses requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do -- not the government -- deserve the credit for making it happen.

Crovitz's own sources and the people who actually created the internet would beg to differ.