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Who Really, Really Invented the Internet?

Recent op-eds have technology experts stirred up about who was the real inventor of the Internet. But Vint Cerf sets the record straight.

The Internet ranks somewhere between fire and sliced bread on the world’s list of greatest inventions. But despite being a fairly recent invention, its exact origin remains a point of dispute. Recently, writers from The Wall Street Journal and Scientific American weighed in on the issue, drawing comments from Google’s own Internet forefather Vint Cerf.

Just Ask Al

Al Gore famously blundered his way through a CNN interview in which he stated, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system.”

His statement was, most likely, just a poor choice a words. While it sounds like Gore was trying to say that he partially supported the creation of the Internet through legislation along with many others, he did say the words: “I took the initiative in creating the Internet,” leaving himself the option to take credit if anyone wanted to give it to him. It is generally agreed that Gore is not personally responsible for single-handedly creating the Internet, but he may have played at least a partial role in fostering its creation through federal legislation. And many people believe that the federal government essentially created the Internet through research and legislation.

Private Enterprise Is Responsible

But the government did not create the Internet, L. Gordon Crovitz wrote in a recent op-ed for The Wall Street Journal. The government envisioned a World Wide Web as early as the 1940s and went on to develop the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). However, that network did not lead to the Internet we have today, Crovitz wrote.

Crovitz contends it was Xerox that invented the Internet, though the company wasn’t quite sure what it had. Xerox used its computer networks to share copiers, because that was the company's business, but that’s where the idea stopped. When Steve Jobs visited Xerox in 1979 to borrow some ideas, he may have seen something bigger. "They just had no idea what they had," Jobs said.

The government had many of today’s Internet’s integral pieces, such as TCP/IP, but never put them together, Crovitz wrote. It was ultimately private enterprise that made the connections to create the Internet we have today, Crovitz wrote – government just needed to get out of the way.

A Misunderstanding

Actually, the government did invent the Internet and Crovitz doesn’t really understand what he’s talking about, according to a Scientific American rebuttal written by Michael Moyer. No private company could have accomplished such a huge undertaking as the Internet, he wrote.

Crovitz is confused about technology, Moyer wrote. Just because Xerox invented Ethernet, doesn’t mean it also invented “the” Internet – it didn’t, Moyer wrote. Connecting several computers together isn’t the same thing as a worldwide computer network. Robert Metcalfe, a researcher at Xerox PARC who co-invented the Ethernet protocol, jokingly referenced the idea on July 23 in a tweet that read, “Is it possible I invented the whole damn Internet?”

“The most important part of what we now know of as the Internet is the TCP/IP protocol, which was invented by Vincent Cerf [sic] and Robert Kahn,” Moyer wrote. “Crovitz mentions TCP/IP, but only in passing, calling it (correctly) ‘the Internet’s backbone.’ He fails to mention that Cerf and Kahn developed TCP/IP while working on a government grant.”

Moyer also pointed out that several others criticized Crovitz for his misunderstandings, perhaps most notably the author of Dealers of Lightning, a history of Xerox PARC that Crovitz used as his main source of material. “While I’m gratified in a sense that he cites my book,” Michael Hiltzik wrote, “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.”

Actually, I Invented the Internet

In a recent interview published by CNET, Cerf, one of the creators of the TCP/IP protocol, responded to Crovitz’s piece, rejecting most his ideas, which he characterized as a “revisionist interpretation.”

The Internet did start with the ARPANET project and the federal government directly funded the creation of the Internet we know today, Cerf wrote. And Xerox deserves credit for great work, Cerf wrote, including creation of the Ethernet protocol, the ALTO personal computer, the Xerox Network System and PARC Universal Packet. “XEROX did link homogenous Ethernets together but the internetworking method did not scale particularly well,” Cerf wrote.

Ultimately, it was the work of researchers around the world from dozens of organizations that created the Internet. “After our initial paper was published, detailed design was conducted at Stanford during 1974 and implementation started in 1975 at Stanford, BBN and University College London. After that, a number of other institutions, notably MIT, SRI, ISI, UCLA, NDRE, engaged heavily in the work,” Cerf wrote.

As for Crovitz’s declaration that the TCP/IP protocol languished for decades in the hands of government, only to be set free by private enterprise, Cerf responded, “I would happily fertilize my tomatoes with Crovitz's assertion.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.