In the recent speech Republicans are pretending to find offensive, President Obama told supporters in Virginia, "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."
Like the other parts of the speech, this went by unchallenged for several days before the right decided to attack. Gordon Crovitz, for example, published a Wall Street Journal op-ed, insisting the government had no meaningful role whatsoever in creating the Internet.
Soon after, Alex Pareene predicted, "I am very confident that 'The Government Had Nothing To Do With Inventing The Internet That Is a Liberal Lie' will become one of those wonderful myths that all true-believer conservatives subscribe to, like 'FDR and the New Deal made the Depression worse' and 'Reagan Was a Good President.'" And sure enough, the right has seized on the meme, with Rush Limbaugh and others denying the government's role.
This is all pretty silly. No one on the left is denying -- or would even want to deny -- the role the private sector has played in the development of the Internet, but the fact remains that these new conservative arguments have no basis in reality. Farhad Manjoo set the record straight this week.
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. [...]
If you spend time looking at the history of the Internet, you'll find the government there at every step. Researchers working directly for the government and at university labs funded by the government were some of the first people on the planet to think up a worldwide network, and, at the beginning, they were the only people working to build such an outlandish thing. That's not true just of the Internet. Pop open your smartphone and you'll find government research at the heart of just about every component, from the batteries to the GPS chip to the microprocessor to the multitouch interface.
This doesn't mean that the government deserves all credit for creating your phone. But it does mean that President Obama was right -- in tech, no one does anything on his own.
The right apparently finds this terribly inconvenient, but the historical record doesn't much care about ideological agendas.
Paul Waldman summarized the facts perfectly: "Government invested money and time at the outset, when the basic research was being done, to create something with enormous potential. That potential was fully realized when the system was opened up to commercial traffic. Once people could make money via the Internet, it exploded across the globe. That growth made possible not only staggering amounts of wealth creation, but also lots of nonprofit endeavors like Wikipedia. Everybody won, and it took both public investment and private enterprise to make it happen. The story is a tribute to both government and the free market. Liberals are happy to acknowledge this simple and obvious truth. Why can't conservatives do the same?"
That need not be a rhetorical question.