The Internet was not created “because of an intelligence effort”

This post is in response to this article at Quartz.

Whether the fundamental claim of the article is correct or not, that Google was founded with research funding from the intelligence community, it is decidedly not true that:

In fact, the internet itself was created because of an intelligence effort: In the 1970s, the agency responsible for developing emerging technologies for military, intelligence, and national security purposes—the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)—linked four supercomputers to handle massive data transfers.

It was not called DARPA at the time. The later focus exclusively on defense technologies was a product of the Mansfield Amendment of 1973. Before that, ARPA was involved in creating GPS as well as other technologies for computing, including the very early Internet, then called the ARPAnet.

Indeed the purpose of the ARPAnet was not to “handle massive data transfers” but simply to link computers together and figure out the best way to do that. Remember, what we call the Internet was still off, begun in the early 1990s, including its separate follow-on, the World Wide Web. There was also an interest in figuring out the best ways of configuring large groups of computers, both civilian and military, for survival in a post-nuclear attack. The ARPAnet itself built on work which ARPA funded, including a Hawaiian network called ALOHAnet.

Later, this construct almost folded, because it had been assigned for care to the National Science Foundation, redubbed NSFnet, used principally for transfers of scientific data and large scale computing collaborations, and ended up sucking up all the funds NSF had. It wasn’t until former Vice President Al Gore, then a Senator, got involved, and negotiated what in effect was a large, federally-back bridge loan to transfer operation of the network into private hands, that the Internet became a reality. The account at Quartz completely misrepresents this history. If the Internet was always the “demon spawn” of the intelligence community, why didn’t it come to its rescue then?

I think people forget how intermingled defense and space funding of research was with technological development. Indeed, people forget how much funding for R&D brought us the world we live in. While federal funding for R&D has diminished, including defense funding, with the possible exception of NIH, what’s striking is that corporate funding for R&D has collapsed. While some, even many companies, fund what they call “research”, this is nearly indistinguishable from product development. Very few companies fund pure R&D, that is, research without a mission or purpose akin to scientific work. Google is one of those companies. (I know Microsoft is another.) There is a tendency for companies in high tech to “acquire technology” by buying start-ups, but few start-ups will make the breakthroughs that led to fundamental changes, whether the transistor, or Ethernet, or fiber optics.

And the federal government’s present mood — and perhaps that of a substantial chunk of the American public — is anti-Science. This has serious implications for both future economic development in the United States as well as the robustness of our military. While military R&D goes on behind the scenes in places like Lockheed-Martin, it suffers greatly from secrecy practices. While Google itself is highly secretive, it’s well known that if a culture wants to push the cutting edge of technology, imposing heavy secrecy and proprietary limits on open discussion and publication hurts more than it helps. For one, it limits the research communities’ criticism of the technology, which is always helpful. For another, it makes those developing these feel that have an advantage over everyone else, a feeling which is ephemeral at best: Most fundamental developments in Science and Engineering are being pursued concurrently by several groups, because they know what the fundamental issues are and where lies the frontier. This tends to retard technological development.

No, the best way to keep ahead of your competition, whether commercial or country, is to push the best technology with the best people, drop secrecy, and always stay ahead of everyone else. There are reasons for having secrecy … to protect short-time, tactical military advantage … but I have never been convinced, in the same way the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan wasn’t (see also), that in the long run it is a win.

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