A Libertarian Thanks the Government for the Internet

“How can you be a libertarian? Don’t you know that the government invented the Internet?

A gotcha. Not as pithy as “Who will build the roads?” But a modern-day classic all the same. Credit where due. Now let’s dissect.

The thrust of the question does not rest, properly speaking, on what historically happened. In the real world, of course, federal R&D funding was sufficient to produce the basic architecture of the Internet. And every reasonably well-informed person knows it.

Properly understood, though, there’s an additional claim – that we must question our commitment to private enterprise – and it rests on a counterfactual: namely, that federal government was necessary here, and that if it had not acted, the private sector couldn’t have gotten us anything sufficiently like the Internet to carry the point. No private entity or coalition would have figured out (or converged upon!) a way to make computers talk to each other, irrespective of local network conventions, through packet switching and a universal computer naming convention. Or their functional equivalents.

That’s a much bolder claim. Particularly when the Internet – or something quite like it – seems to have been on everyone’s mind. Long before there was a real-life Internet, there were networked computers in science fiction. And everybody who had a computer in the early days appears to have wanted nothing more than to talk to everybody else who had a computer. To say that this incredibly enterprising and intelligent cohort – which would, without DARPA, have included Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and Donald Davies – would still be unable to create the Internet… well, that position smells more than a little of magical thinking, and the odd belief that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. We just couldn’t have done it otherwise!

Further, as one of my colleagues pointed out, when we say yes to the government, we aren’t simply saying yes to the Internet. If only that were all of it! But it never is: When we say yes to the entity whose employees invented packet switching, we also say yes to the entity that runs the murderous drug war, the one whose employees shoot, beat, and tase helpless handcuffed pregnant people. The entity whose other projects include Guantanamo Bay, our morally grotesque immigration policy, massive NSA surveillance, and whatever the hell they’re currently up to in Yemen. (I’m not sure I even want to know.)

In short, even if the magical-thinking counterfactual were completely airtight, it’s far from clear that this is a deal we’d be happy to take ex ante.

But the title of this post would be misleading if I didn’t offer my sincere thanks, and I plan to: I, a libertarian, will thank the government for the Internet.

We mustn’t do so without a full picture of exactly what it did, and happily that picture is… small. If we are to thank the government for the Internet, then besides the pittance it took in federal R&D money, we must also give thanks that this technology was rather promptly liberated: The Internet did not remain merely a piece of military hardware, as it easily might have, and for which scant thanks would be required. An actually quite believable counterfactual, I find, is a world in which the federal government decided that the Internet – while it might have been invented by anyone – was simply too good a piece of military hardware ever to be released to the public. And in this world even private imitators of the basic technology are actively forbidden.

I find this counterfactual relatively plausible because something rather like it nearly happened in our own world, in the so-called crypto wars. Indeed, something rather like is in the process of happening once again. We should be thankful that our government didn’t take this route on the basic idea of the Internet.

In our own world, the Internet was soon opened up to civilian researchers, and a few years later it shed the cumbersome rules that forbade private commerce. Censorship proposals were mostly brushed aside, and the Internet became one of the freest – indeed one of the most nearly anarchic – social spaces in the world.

It was a rare and bravura performance in the art of getting out of the way. If only our government did so more often. And now I can say it without a chance of being misunderstood: Thank you, federal government, for the Internet! I look forward, I hope, to thanking you for many similar endeavors in the future.

4 thoughts on “A Libertarian Thanks the Government for the Internet

  1. Let’s assume a private entity invented the internet, what incentive would they have had to step aside the way the government did? Or do you think there would have been many competing internets that eventually coalesced into one (the way that AOL initially tried to push their keywords in opposition to www addresses)?

    I think a much better though experiment is the human genome project:
    1) The cost was so monumental it required the participation of multiple governments.
    2) A private entity (Craig Venter) tried to compete with the assembly but could not do it without the publicly assembled pieces.
    3) There is essentially one product for all of humanity; you couldn’t have had multiple competing genomes and let the invisible hand decide. Moreover, with such a huge initial investment, whoever got there first would have surely locked the whole thing down (as Venter publicly planned to do).

    Should we think of the human genome as a utility?

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  2. Let’s assume a private entity invented the internet, what incentive would they have had to step aside the way the government did?

    Is it so strange to posit the existence of open-source software, and perhaps just a bit of open-source hardware design?

    Madness, I know. Libertarian crazy talk. Pay no mind.

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    • Was there a lot of open-source software before the internet? Were there companies willing to invest ~$125 million into protocol and backbone development (i.e. hardware, not just hardware design) and then hand it over to the public? We don’t even have to imagine what would happen, we can just look at modern-day ISPs itching to slap handling fees on packets that they don’t like. The foundation of the internet was universal access – anyone can host a server and their traffic gets routed – which would have been impossible with multiple corps competing to sell their spin on “internet”. Arguing that a benevolent VC or some open-source collective would’ve funded the whole thing and then given it up as a public good sounds a lot like that magical thinking you were describing.

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  3. Of course there was open source software before the Internet, in that people regularly shared code and ideas with one another. Nothing like afterward, true, but to say that it couldn’t have happened any other way remains the much stronger claim.

    As to whether companies would be willing to hand over their investment to the public, perhaps not. But the worst-case scenario, then, would be that path dependence would create a natural monopolist. Not that the Internet could never emerge.

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