Re: Libertarianism and the Internet

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Tom, you’re not wrong. The internet began as a typical government program, the “ARPANET,” designed to establish a secure military communications network. (Histories are available here, here, and here, among many other places.) Of course none of the designers could have foreseen what the (commercial) internet has become. Still, this history has important implications for how the internet works.

There was an interesting discussion on this very subject on the old Libprofs list a few years ago. It’s archived here. My contribution was this:

These [illustrations provided in a previous post] are all good
examples, but the discussion seriously understates the
government’s role in the Internet. Indeed, seemingly lost in this whole
exchange is the fact that the ‘Net owes its very *existence* to the state
and to state funding. The ‘Net’s basic architecture (packet switching,
the TCP/IP protocol, etc.) was designed by the Department of Defense and
the RAND corporation in the 1960s for a specific purpose, namely military
communication in the event of a nuclear war. The expansion of the network
to include academic and other non-military users was facilitated by the
DoD’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA). (The research network
quickly became, in Bruce Sterling’s words, “less a network for shared
computing than a high-speed, federally subsidized, electronic post
office.”) ARPA, and later the National Science Foundation, continued to
finance the backbone or “trunk” lines, for both academic and commercial
users, until 1994. In short, both the design and implementation of the
Internet have relied almost exclusively on government dollars.

The fact that its designers envisioned a packet-switching network has
serious implications for how the ‘Net actually works. (For example,
packet switching is good for file transfers and e-mail but very bad for
real-time applications like video and audio feeds.) Furthermore, without
any mechanism for pricing individual packets, the network is overused,
like any public good. Hence when praising the ‘Net we tend to commit the
broken window fallacy: sure, it’s a technological marvel, but we will
never know what kind of network the market would have built had those
millions of dollars not been taken in taxes and given to ARPA and RAND.
In no sense can we say that packet-switching is the “right” technology.

One of my favorite quotes on this subject comes from the “Netbook,” a
semi-official history of the ‘Net: “The current global computer network
has been developed by scientists and researchers and users who were free
of market forces. Because of the government oversight and subsidy of
network development, these network pioneers were not under the time
pressures or bottom-line restraints that dominate commercial ventures.
Therefore, they could contribute the time and labor needed to make sure
the problems were solved. And most were doing so to contribute to the
networking community.” In other words, the designers of the Internet were
“free” from the constraint that whatever they produced had to be desired
by consumers.

My point is that we must be very careful not to describe the Internet as a
“private” technology, a spontaneous order, or a shining example of
capitalistic ingenuity. It is none of these. Of course, many of the
‘Net’s current applications — unforeseen by its original designers — have
been developed in the private sector. (Unfortunately, the Web is not
among them, having been designed by the state-funded European Laboratory
for Particle Physics (CERN).) Still, none of these would have been
viable without the huge investment of public dollars that brought the
network into existence in the first place.

How does all this relate to the censorship issue? I’m not entirely sure.
But it seems to me the proper way to frame the discussion is as if we were
talking about the regulation of roads, parks, and other taxpayer-financed
goods, not market-provided goods like pornographic movies. Remember, the
issue is not IBM’s right to regulate the content of its private, corporate
network, or Compuserve’s right to drop the alt.sex groups from its list of
Usenet groups, had its customers so demanded.

By the way, I would be cautious about joining up with electronic “civil
liberties” organizations like Pat Leahy’s Electronic Frontier Foundation
whose definition of individual rights is closer to the ACLU’s than
Rothbard’s or Rand’s.

Tom Hazlett responded with a strong rejection of my position.

While this was written back in 1996, I have to say the discussion holds up well. The fundamental issues haven’t changed much.

12:08 am on February 19, 2004