Whose Internet is it?

BY THOMAS P. HUGHES


When Bill Gates of Microsoft says that government with its antitrust maneuvers is meddling in the marketplace and that "what the government is asking would significantly hamper us from competing," he is forgetting something: It was government "meddling" two decades ago that initiated the Internet in which Microsoft and Netscape Corporation are seeking competitive advantage today.

Both Microsoft and the Justice Department, along with 20 state attorneys general, both insist they are acting in the consumer's interest by championing innovation and market competition. Neither takes sufficiently into account that Americans are not only consumers of computers and users of information processing but also, as taxpayers, substantial Internet "investors," who deserves a return on the investment through competitive quality products at competitive prices.

It was federal funding in 1969 that initiated the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet. Rough estimates based on data from the National Science Foundation show that between 1976 and 1992, federal funding usually amounted to a quarter or a third of funding for computer-related research. More than a third of the federal funds went to basic research upon which depends the U. S. lead in computing and communication.

Paradoxically, Microsoft and Netscape, two private corporations, now compete for control of Internet browsing that depends upon software first researched and developed at CERN, an international non-profit center for atomic research, and at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois, funded by the National Science Foundation.

We cannot say there would have been no Internet and no information revolution without government funding, but we can say that the federal government has played a major role in launching this revolution.

Corporate hyperbole

Gates also argues that the government in its antitrust suit is asking for measures that would significantly hamper Microsoft as an innovator and would "put everything we've built for the last 23 years at risk." Many successful entrepreneurs and companies in the computer industry similarly assert that they have done it alone, their way. This attitude has become commonplace during the last decade when the success of American competitive, marketplace capitalism has stimulated self-congratulatory solo flights of rhetoric.

Gates and others would be closer to the mark if they attributed U.S. achievement in computers and information processing to a government-industry-university complex which has flourished since World War II, rather than simply to heroic corporate enterprise.

This complex is not only responsible for the origins of the Internet but also for the nation's early scientific and military mainframe computers, computer timesharing, early artificial intelligence, computer graphics and virtual reality. In addition, federally funded university scholarships and fellowships have played a leading role in providing the human, scientific, engineering and managerial resources upon which private firms depend.

Microsoft and other executives use loose talk about the bruising nature of competition which they compare to a football game. They do not bother to add another metaphor: Government funding has not only provided a playing field but much of the equipment.

U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson, who is supervising the antitrust cases brought against Microsoft, will probably not consider the role of the taxpayer's investment in providing the research and infrastructure contributing to the information revolution. But such an awareness could bring him to discount some gross exaggerations he will hear about the sources of technological innovation.

Thomas P. Hughes is Mellon Professor Emeritus of the History of Technology at the University of Pennsylvania and Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What's bugging you? You can contribute a column on a general interest or University-related subject. Call us first, 898-1426, or e-mail us.

Front page for this issue | Pennsylvania Current home page

Originally published on January 28, 1999