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The Internet is the product of the free market (if you ignore all that government money that went into it)

Posted by Matt on September 18, 2013         Tagged with: tech, internet

So a conservative think tank called the American Enterprise Institute launched The Center for Internet, Communications and Technology Policy on Monday and to the extent I have any opinion on that at all, it's a positive one. I like technology policy and I like discussions of technology policy, even when I completely disagree with everything one side is saying. Which, based on this interview that Jeffrey Eisenach, the director of the CICT, gave to the Washington Post, is pretty much how I expect things will go between me and them.

I don't disagree with everything he says. He talks about fixing the patent system and limiting government surveillance powers, and other nice ideas. I do disagree with his stance that the free market will solve net neutrality issues, but while that might be worthy of a "this guy is saying things I disagree with" tweet, it wouldn't warrant a blog post. No, the really obnoxious part of the interview is this gem, given in response to the interviewer raising the possibility that Comcast might limit Netflix traffic in order to promote it's own video-over-IP services:

The Internet is a free-market success story made in America. We want people to recognize that the market-oriented approach the U.S. has taken on these issues is the right approach. We have protected property rights to intellectual property. We have not forced innovators to share the fruits of their efforts. On all of those fronts, the U.S. has taken a market-oriented approach, and in our view that worked.

Now, this was a Washington Post interview and not an academic thesis, and it's possible that given more time and space, he would have elaborated on that first sentence and explained how, in the right context, that isn't a completely ridiculous statement to make. But he didn't.

The groundwork for the Internet was laid in research done by ARPA (now DARPA), a research arm of the US Department of Defense. The TCP/IP protocol which computers on the Internet use to talk to each other was developed by Vint Cert and Robert Khan while they were at UCLA and ARPA, respectively. The HTTP protocol, a higher level protocol which powers the World Wide Web (ie. web pages) was developed by Tim Berners-Lee, a Brit working in France for the European Council for Nuclear Research. The World Wide Web is still what pops into most people's heads when you say the words "The Internet", and it was undoubtedly one of the major factors which convinced non-nerds that the Internet was something they might care about.

Which isn't to say that private enterprise didn't play a large role in the spread of the Internet. Particularly relevant (at least with respect to the topic of net neutrality), is the role they played in bringing Internet connections to homes. Of course, even saying that ignores the fact that at least here in Canada, one of the largest commercial ISPs in the country was once a Crown corporation itself. Or that in the US, major ISPs ignore small markets while simultaneously opposing the efforts of municipal governments who attempt to build their own networks to provide broadband service to their residents.

So yes, the Internet is the product of unfettered American capitalism, as long as we ignore all that government money (or if you prefer: "taxpayer money") that went into it.

Update: The Washington Post has published an interview with Harold Feld of Public Knowledge to get his response to the Eisenach interview.