In one of those now-frequent "I can't believe we're actually going to argue about this" moments, conservatives have now decided that the United States government did not actually have any meaningful role in the creation of the Internet, despite what everyone, including all the people who were there at the time, have always known. Why have they suddenly come to this revelation? All you need to know is that Barack Obama has recently been using the Internet as an example of where government can create conditions that allow private enterprise to flourish, and as Simon Malloy says, if Obama says something, "that, ipso facto, makes it false." Part of what's so crazy about this is that the tale of the Internet's creation and development is actually a story of public/private partnership that both liberals and conservatives ought to be able to celebrate.
The conservatives' "evidence" for their brand-new claim is an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal by Gordon Crovitz claiming that the government really had nothing to do with it. You'll be shocked to learn that the piece is little but a collection of false claims and bizarre revisionist history; one person whom Crovitz cites in order to make his argument, author Michael Hiltzik, quickly took to print to point out that Crovitz got most of his facts wrong and completely misinterpreted Hiltzik's book. (If you're curious, Farhad Manjoo gives a good explanation of why Crovitz is so wrong.)
But who cares about the facts? As Alex Pareene wrote, "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." Lo and behold, that's exactly what's happening, with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh leading the way. Don't be surprised if this turns up in a Mitt Romney speech before week's end.
The actual history of the Internet is a complex and at times highly technical story, but the quick version is this: It had its genesis in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA—an early version was called "ARPANET"), but many different computer scientists at many different institutions had hands in the early development. From the beginning, there was involvement from the government, universities, some institutions in other countries, and some private companies. Many of the researchers involved who weren't actually working for the government were funded by federal government grants. Might the Internet have happened without the U.S. government's involvement? Maybe, probably not, but it doesn't really matter. The fact is it did.
It's obvious why liberals love this story: It shows the government doing something innovative that ends up transforming the entire world, mostly for the better. It also shows how government can, with a relatively modest investment at the right time and place, do something that leads to the creation of huge amounts of private wealth. But as Kevin Drum pointed out in response to the new conservative line, "One of the things that gets me about this nonsense is how one-sided it is. Can you imagine a liberal writing a column claiming that private industry played virtually no role in the development of the Internet? I can't. We often cite the Internet as an example of government support for basic research and infrastructure, but we'd never pretend that private industry didn't play a big role too."
Listen, conservatives: I'm sure you think that liberals are too quick to caricature your views, when we say things like, "Conservatives don't think government should do anything to help people." You'll respond, "That's silly, of course we think there's a role for government—we just think it should be a limited role." But this kind of thing, claiming that government had no role in the creation of the Internet, is why we say those kinds of things about you. Because so often, you find new ways that even we couldn't have come up with to become caricatures of yourselves.
As I said, the Internet's development is a story everybody should be able to feel good about. 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?