The US government resisted the Internet, instead of supporting it

The US government resisted the Internet, instead of supporting it

Summary: President Obama claims the US government invented the Internet so companies could profit from it. In fact, the US government mandated support for a rival networking system, OSI, and tried to avoid adopting the Internet's protocols

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The question of "Who really invented the Internet?" has been one of the technological issues in the current US presidential election. This is odd, because the Internet's history has been well documented, and most of the people involved are still alive. However, the controversy has less to do with technology than with the endless battle between publicly-funded good works and private enterprise.

President Obama has identified the Internet as a public good produced by the US government. In a campaign speech, he said: "The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."

The first two parts of that statement are true, and the final part isn't. The Internet (a network of networks) was created directly as a part of the research efforts of DARPA, the US government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. However, it wasn't done so that anybody could make money from it. Indeed, in the net's early days, it was specifically reserved for non-commercial use, and the idea of making money from it was sometimes described as illegal.

Vint Cerf, now of Google
Vint Cerf Photo: Google

Briefly, the Internet was made possible by Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn, when they developed TCP, the Internet protocol. Both men had worked on the development of the ARPANET network from about 1968. Also, while working for BBN, Kahn had developed the ARPANET IMP (Interface Message Processor), an early packet switch. The next step was to connect the ARPANET to other research networks such as NSFNET (the National Science Foundation network), NASA's SPAN (the space physics network), and MILNET to create a network of networks. That needed a common protocol, and they all had to be persuaded to support TCP/IP.

None of this means that the US government, or its various agencies, wanted the Internet. In fact, they tried to avoid adopting it.

The US and European Union governments adopted a different networking strategy, based on a complex seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. This was developed in Europe as an international standard (ISO/IEC 7498-1), and it had a vast number of supporting standards. These included ITU (International Telecommunications Union) X standards such as X.25 packet switching and X.400 email.

US and EU government support for OSI led to the publication of GOSIP (Government Open Systems Interconnection Profiles) as a requirement for government procurements. In other words, commercial companies would be forced to support the local GOSIP before governments would buy their stuff.

This had a laudable aim. Most governments had bought vast quantities of incompatible equipment from global IT manufacturers such as IBM, DEC and Data General, as well as "national champions" such as ICL in the UK, Honeywell-Bull in France, Siemens and Nixdorf in Germany, and so on. They wanted it to work together, and setting an open standard was the best way to do it.

Companies had fair warning, and worked on their OSI interoperability from the early 1980s. However, the first US government specification requiring OSI protocols, FIPS 146-1, wasn't published until 1990.

In other words, the US government mandated OSI networking seven years after TCP/IP had been installed on its own research networks on January 1, 1983.

The US government didn't officially change its mind until 1995, when the new FIPS 146-2 profile allowed ITU, ISO and — crucially — IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) standards. That enabled US government departments, commercial companies and individuals to unite behind Internet standards for the first time.

I reported OSI's development for many years, and was aware that the Internet Protocol (IP) had had to overcome tremendous resistance. I raised the point with Vint Cerf when I interviewed him for the Guardian in November 2000 (Surfing through space). He said:

"It's true, many people resisted it. Its predecessor, the ARPANET, was considered a silly idea that wouldn't work, and it was ridiculed by people who grew up in the telephone tradition. Most of the computer science communities also rejected the idea of connecting up, and ARPA had to insist.

"When it came time to convert from the old ARPANET protocols to the new Internet protocols, in January 1983, there was tremendous resistance. Finally, we had to force it on people by turning off the old protocols, so we jammed it down their throats. Then came the lengthy debate between the OSI and Internet protocols, and again, that was a 10-year battle."

President Obama is right to say that "The Internet didn't get invented on its own," and we all owe a huge debt to DARPA in particular. It was US government research funding and sponsorship from 1968 through 1995 that made the Internet a success.

But the idea that the US government did this knowingly and with commercial foresight, like building a new highway system, just isn't true. The networking system that the US government knowingly supported with commercial foresight was OSI, and that failed.

 

Topics: Government US, Networking

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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20 comments
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  • Precis

    Obama, like all politicians across the globe, is talking complete and utter BS.
    However I do believe the USA invented the term "BS" ;-)
    Then again I could be wrong ... it could be that the USA simply invented the term "BS" to make money. That sounds more plausible :-(
    jacksonjohn
    • Count 'em

      Actually, in the US we have two separate terms. There's "BS to make money" and "BS to get elected." When somebody uses BS to get elected in order to make money, we usually call it "corruption," but sometimes it's just "the Clintons."
      Robert Hahn
      • Lol

        That was awesome
        fgains
        • Agreed

          An awesome comment.
          zdnetreader123
      • Robert Hahn ....maybe you should tell us tell us what the BUSHES did

        for us besides give the top 1% another TAX break .......oh but I forgot I''m part of that 47% that don't count in Romney EYEs either .....we all need more trickle down economics to start taking effect now don't we ........now trickle down economics that was really the biggest BS TERM I ever herd ....... now wasn't it?
        Over and Out
        • Steady on there with the profanity.

          He's already said the Clintons, now that was bad enough. Now you use the Bushes ... go wash your mouth out with soap and water you vulgar little man ;)
          Pastabake
  • Sounds more like a EU insistence for the OSI model rather than a US push

    to adopt those protocol over the Internet protocols used today. I suspect you left out the one key point in your blog that "tip the scales" in favor for Internet protocol adoption over the OSI model. That would be the creation of the GUI layer for the Internet - or the World Wide Web created by Tim Berners-Lee together with Robert Cailliau.
    kenosha77a
    • To leave Berners-Lee and CERN out of the Internet equation

      especially the way the author framed the (evolutionary) story based on Obama's dubious comment about all subsequent commercial connections, seems a bit incomplete.
      klumper
    • Not reallt EU insistence

      The OSI protocols were developed "in Europe", because the ITU headquarters happen to be in Geneva. At that time, the EU Governments, just as the US Government were utterly confused. They tried (hard)to prevent this Internet thing from happening.
      It was the US however, where GOSIP was shining ... in it's absurdity.

      What is ironic is that although TCP/IP was developed "in the US" (in fact, everything Internet has always been multinational and more precisely multi-individuals effors), it was Europe, where Internet first saw light outside accademics and research. For several years, Internet services were offered in Europe on commercial basis, to anyone -- while in the US, this was strictly prohibited by policy. Then of course, the concept was borrowed by our US colleagues and they quickly created the so called dot.com revolution.
      danbi
  • "The first two parts of that statement are true, and the final part isn't."

    Not really. The last part is based on the fact they made the Internet public. So much for your politico bashing. Like all *NIX based groups, the politics takes priority over the technology, so it's no surprise that they had to shove it down people's throats.
    happyharry_z
  • Partly correct, but wrong at the front side...

    DARPA funding was a side effect. Researchers at Stanford and Cornell needed someone with deep pockets to pay the phone bill for the new XEROX invention of Ethernet across country. They suckered DARPA into funding it, which they did for many years. Once they were happy, they pretty much ignored government, which is why they went berserk with new standards. confusion was important, since without the confusion DARPA would figure out what they were doing. Once the dust settled, and DARPA found out they had been snookered for free MaBell T1 bandwidth all those years, they phased out ARPANET almost at once...
    Tony Burzio
    • Funny

      I knew it all started with DARPA and went private later but I didn't know the govt were just acting as investors into the R&D without actually owning the original infrastructure. So Vint and Bob just left the govt one day and said 'hey were taking the network with us?'. I guess it wasn't really the physical assets more than the idea of the internet that they took with them and had additional research centers setup and plug-in to their network.
      dtdono0
    • Hmm

      Wikipedia says that Ethernet was developed between 1973 and 1974. An important RFQ for Arpanet was awarded in 1968. The first Arpanet communication was October 29, 1969 at UCLA. It was "lo" of login. It crashed after the two letters. The first four nodes (UCLA, Stanford, UC Santa Barbara, and University of Utah) were fully functional by December 1969.

      As Wikipedia conforms to my understanding, and, since, as a high school junior in 1973, I was shown a rack at UCSB Engineering described as the school's internet node, and as a few months earlier an ad I saw at the back of Scientific American showing the nine or so nodes of Arpanet, including the one in my home town of Santa Barbara, I'm finding your description of what happened forty years back to be less than convincing.
      DannyO_0x98
  • The heavy hand

    At various times, the U.S. government has also required the use of the ADCCP and X.25 communication protocols, and the pre-relational CODASYL database standard. They mean well, and they try so hard to help, but they often end up holding things back.
    Robert Hahn
  • Partial Ire for Partially Wrong

    There was a mid-90s legislation which was ostensibly meant to incentivize development of an infrastructure to for widely available high-speed data. US government and free market cooperation.

    We also know that government has legislated prohibitions against municipal wi-if, ostensibly to support the free market, but in effect a protection of de facto monopolies.

    HTML came out of CERN, which I believe is a public sector entity. Xerox PARC provided key technologies and didn't really profit for having done so. AOL and Compuserve and Microsoft had a different vision for the internet in the mid-90s, one built around their collection of tolls for access. It would be worse today if they got their way or if Xerox had aggressively managed an ip portfolio so as to keep alive patents on ethernet, postscript, WIMP, etc..

    Here's the real point. A categorical "The public sector [or government] does not create jobs." is a bit of fundamentalist cant that relies on an ignorance of history or revisionism. Monetary gain is an important motive for progress. It is also a powerful motive for impeding others bringing progress to market, as example, I cite late 90s Microsoft's actions regarding java and other browsers' perceived threats to the desktop. But, altruism and curiosity are also motivators. Development without immediate payback and long-term capital projects where the value captured goes to the customers (for example, the TVA) are public sector activities, because the private sector won't see a quick-enough or large-enough payoff. This means it can't get loans from private bankers or create a persuasive prospectus for potential investors.

    Not everything turns into something: this is known as risk. Government and public sector entities do not rely directly on customers generating the wealth that is available for building the future. This can be abused by charlatans, but being in the private sector is no immunity to suckerism.

    Once the internet became something where monetization could be imagined, out came the usual suspects to try and influence government so as to gain advantage. Besides, the government is a very large consumer and sometimes politics interfere with purchasing decisions and standards. Sometimes well meaning people in government make decisions that are poor in retrospect, but mainly because the priorities of the moment suggested an approach and the future is unpredictable. Sometimes the government is afraid of future technology because it looks like surveillance is made more difficult.
    DannyO_0x98
  • Partial Ire for Partially Wrong

    There was a mid-90s legislation which was ostensibly meant to incentivize development of an infrastructure to for widely available high-speed data. US government and free market cooperation.

    We also know that government has legislated prohibitions against municipal wi-if, ostensibly to support the free market, but in effect a protection of de facto monopolies.

    HTML came out of CERN, which I believe is a public sector entity. Xerox PARC provided key technologies and didn't really profit for having done so. AOL and Compuserve and Microsoft had a different vision for the internet in the mid-90s, one built around their collection of tolls for access. It would be worse today if they got their way or if Xerox had aggressively managed an ip portfolio so as to keep alive patents on ethernet, postscript, WIMP, etc..

    Here's the real point. A categorical "The public sector [or government] does not create jobs." is a bit of fundamentalist cant that relies on an ignorance of history or revisionism. Monetary gain is an important motive for progress. It is also a powerful motive for impeding others bringing progress to market, as example, I cite late 90s Microsoft's actions regarding java and other browsers' perceived threats to the desktop. But, altruism and curiosity are also motivators. Development without immediate payback and long-term capital projects where the value captured goes to the customers (for example, the TVA) are public sector activities, because the private sector won't see a quick-enough or large-enough payoff. This means it can't get loans from private bankers or create a persuasive prospectus for potential investors.

    Not everything turns into something: this is known as risk. Government and public sector entities do not rely directly on customers generating the wealth that is available for building the future. This can be abused by charlatans, but being in the private sector is no immunity to suckerism.

    Once the internet became something where monetization could be imagined, out came the usual suspects to try and influence government so as to gain advantage. Besides, the government is a very large consumer and sometimes politics interfere with purchasing decisions and standards. Sometimes well meaning people in government make decisions that are poor in retrospect, but mainly because the priorities of the moment suggested an approach and the future is unpredictable. Sometimes the government is afraid of future technology because it looks like surveillance is made more difficult.
    DannyO_0x98
  • Everyone Helps, Everyone Interferes

    There was a mid-90s legislation which was ostensibly meant to incentivize development of an infrastructure to for widely available high-speed data. US government and free market cooperation.

    We also know that government has legislated prohibitions against municipal wi-if, ostensibly to support the free market, but in effect a protection of de facto monopolies.

    HTML came out of CERN, which I believe is a public sector entity. Xerox PARC provided key technologies and didn't really profit for having done so. AOL and Compuserve and Microsoft had a different vision for the internet in the mid-90s, one built around their collection of tolls for access. It would be worse today if they got their way or if Xerox had aggressively managed an ip portfolio so as to keep alive patents on ethernet, postscript, WIMP, etc..

    Here's the real point. A categorical "The public sector [or government] does not create jobs." is a bit of fundamentalist cant that relies on an ignorance of history or revisionism. Monetary gain is an important motive for progress. It is also a powerful motive for impeding others bringing progress to market, as example, I cite late 90s Microsoft's actions regarding java and other browsers' perceived threats to the desktop. But, altruism and curiosity are also motivators. Development without immediate payback and long-term capital projects where the value captured goes to the customers (for example, the TVA) are public sector activities, because the private sector won't see a quick-enough or large-enough payoff. This means it can't get loans from private bankers or create a persuasive prospectus for potential investors.

    Not everything turns into something: this is known as risk. Government and public sector entities do not rely directly on customers generating the wealth that is available for building the future. This can be abused by charlatans, but being in the private sector is no immunity to suckerism.

    Once the internet became something where monetization could be imagined, out came the usual suspects to try and influence government so as to gain advantage. Besides, the government is a very large consumer and sometimes politics interfere with purchasing decisions and standards. Sometimes well meaning people in government make decisions that are poor in retrospect, but mainly because the priorities of the moment suggested an approach and the future is unpredictable. Sometimes the government is afraid of future technology because it looks like surveillance is made more difficult.
    DannyO_0x98
    • Governments are People

      People working in government may make decisions based on what will keep them employed. Again, this is not strictly a public sector phenomenon. Very few people would go to their boss and say "Do this, and you won't have to pay for me!"
      DannyO_0x98
  • Obama is full of it

    "The Internet didn't get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet."

    Everyone knows Al Gore invented the damn thing. Even Al. And it was for the good of mankind, er, peoplekind, er, humankind, er ... and that's the way it is. And always will be.
    klumper
  • Revisionist rubbish

    Some of us do know how to use the Internet to look up stuff and get smarter (as opposed to staying willfully ignorant and posting dopey comments.)

    I recommend Googling up something like "Brief History of the Internet" by the Internet Society for something a little bit less on the revisionist rubbish side of things.
    JustCallMeBC