Commentary Magazine


Topic: Internet

Government Didn’t Build That Internet

The shooting attack in Aurora, Colorado, was the sort of news event that stopped the political world dead in its tracks. Despite the initial attempts of some foolish journalists and politicians, the slaughter didn’t fit into any convenient political narrative, but it did benefit President Obama in two ways. The first was that it demonstrated again the advantage of incumbency in which a sitting president is called upon to represent the feelings of all Americans. In this case, Obama’s performance as mourner-in-chief reminded us of his rhetorical strengths as well as the potent symbolism of his presidency.

The other benefit he received was that the killings pushed his “you didn’t build that” gaffe out of the spotlight for at least a couple of days. That relieved liberal pundits of the burden of twisting themselves into pretzels while attempting to argue that Obama didn’t really mean that the government was more important than individual effort in creating businesses. The pause in the parsing of the president’s all-too-revealing comment will only be temporary, as the Romney campaign will be reminding us of it for the next three months. But just as important as the “what did he mean by that” debate is an effort to understand just how wrong the president is about big government’s role in paving the way for business success. Gordon Crovitz writes today in the Wall Street Journal, taking aim at one of the central planks in Obama’s spiel in which he claimed “Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.” Not true. The Internet was primarily the work of private business initiative in which federal involvement was conspicuous by its absence.

As Crovitz writes:

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.

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The shooting attack in Aurora, Colorado, was the sort of news event that stopped the political world dead in its tracks. Despite the initial attempts of some foolish journalists and politicians, the slaughter didn’t fit into any convenient political narrative, but it did benefit President Obama in two ways. The first was that it demonstrated again the advantage of incumbency in which a sitting president is called upon to represent the feelings of all Americans. In this case, Obama’s performance as mourner-in-chief reminded us of his rhetorical strengths as well as the potent symbolism of his presidency.

The other benefit he received was that the killings pushed his “you didn’t build that” gaffe out of the spotlight for at least a couple of days. That relieved liberal pundits of the burden of twisting themselves into pretzels while attempting to argue that Obama didn’t really mean that the government was more important than individual effort in creating businesses. The pause in the parsing of the president’s all-too-revealing comment will only be temporary, as the Romney campaign will be reminding us of it for the next three months. But just as important as the “what did he mean by that” debate is an effort to understand just how wrong the president is about big government’s role in paving the way for business success. Gordon Crovitz writes today in the Wall Street Journal, taking aim at one of the central planks in Obama’s spiel in which he claimed “Government research created the Internet so that all companies could make money off the Internet.” Not true. The Internet was primarily the work of private business initiative in which federal involvement was conspicuous by its absence.

As Crovitz writes:

It’s an urban legend that the government launched the Internet. The myth is that the Pentagon created the Internet to keep its communications lines up even in a nuclear strike. The truth is a more interesting story about how innovation happens—and about how hard it is to build successful technology companies even once the government gets out of the way.

It was researchers at the Xerox Corporation who developed the Ethernet to link different computer networks, the first personal computer and the first graphical user interface. They did so because they couldn’t wait for the government to connect the different computer networks that existed in the 1970s. Government researchers were burdened by regulations and rules that inhibited innovation and flexibility that private companies did not — and still don’t — suffer from.

But, as Crovitz points out, Xerox’s failure to profit from its innovation highlights why the top-down government model doesn’t create business success. Solely focused on promoting its lucrative copier business, Xerox didn’t know what it had and wound up letting Steve Jobs and Apple take advantage of the concepts they had created.

As Crovitz concludes:

As for the government’s role, the Internet was fully privatized in 1995, when a remaining piece of the network run by the National Science Foundation was closed—just as the commercial Web began to boom. Economist Tyler Cowen wrote in 2005: “The Internet, in fact, reaffirms the basic free market critique of large government. Here for 30 years the government had an immensely useful protocol for transferring information, TCP/IP, but it languished. … In less than a decade, private concerns have taken that protocol and created one of the most important technological revolutions of the millennia.”

It’s important to understand the history of the Internet because it’s too often wrongly cited to justify big government. It’s also important to recognize that building great technology businesses requires both innovation and the skills to bring innovations to market. As the contrast between Xerox and Apple shows, few business leaders succeed in this challenge. Those who do—not the government—deserve the credit for making it happen.

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Fayyadism 2012: Censorship Not Freedom

In 2010, when Nathan Brown concluded his report on the Palestinian Authority’s “state-building,” he declared “Fayyadism”–the idea that Salam Fayyad was building essential governing institutions–for the mirage it was. The impression on the ground was that Fayyad was merely managing the decay of the institutions Yasser Arafat had built. Crucially, Brown wrote: “To the extent that Fayyadism is building institutions, it is unmistakably doing so in an authoritarian context.” Translation: whatever it is Fayyad is doing would be impossible in a democratic setting.

Brown’s report echoes back this week as Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reports that the Palestinian Authority has now added a new element to its authoritarianism:

According to a report from Ma’an News published today, the Palestinian Authority has ordered the blocking of websites belonging to eight news outlets critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.  The report states that technicians at PalTel—the largest ISP in the West Bank—tweaked their proxy server and web cache daemon to block the sites, while other ISPs are using similar setups. The blocking is inconsistent across ISPs, with at least one failing to block certain sites on the list…

Prior to these latest developments, Internet under the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been relatively unfettered, with only one site—Dounia Al Watan, a news site that was reporting on corruption within the PA—ever reported as blocked in the West Bank.  Gaza’s Internet is considerably more restricted, with sexually explicit websites blocked.

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In 2010, when Nathan Brown concluded his report on the Palestinian Authority’s “state-building,” he declared “Fayyadism”–the idea that Salam Fayyad was building essential governing institutions–for the mirage it was. The impression on the ground was that Fayyad was merely managing the decay of the institutions Yasser Arafat had built. Crucially, Brown wrote: “To the extent that Fayyadism is building institutions, it is unmistakably doing so in an authoritarian context.” Translation: whatever it is Fayyad is doing would be impossible in a democratic setting.

Brown’s report echoes back this week as Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, reports that the Palestinian Authority has now added a new element to its authoritarianism:

According to a report from Ma’an News published today, the Palestinian Authority has ordered the blocking of websites belonging to eight news outlets critical of President Mahmoud Abbas.  The report states that technicians at PalTel—the largest ISP in the West Bank—tweaked their proxy server and web cache daemon to block the sites, while other ISPs are using similar setups. The blocking is inconsistent across ISPs, with at least one failing to block certain sites on the list…

Prior to these latest developments, Internet under the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been relatively unfettered, with only one site—Dounia Al Watan, a news site that was reporting on corruption within the PA—ever reported as blocked in the West Bank.  Gaza’s Internet is considerably more restricted, with sexually explicit websites blocked.

Ma’an reports that the new round of censorship was the brainchild of the Palestinian attorney general, who cracks down on such freedom from time to time, chipping away at whatever temporary semblance of personal liberty Palestinians in the West Bank enjoy.

Usually these crackdowns earn some form of public protest, but that seems to be lacking in this case. Ma’an explains that this is because no one will risk even talking about participation in the program:

By contrast, the blocking has gone largely unnoticed. Mada, a press freedom group, raised the issue of Milad and Amad, while U.S. blogger “Challah Hu Akbar” reported extensively about In Light Press, but many Palestinians remain unaware the Internet is censored. This is partly because providers have not acknowledged their cooperation nor have subscribers been told any websites are off limits.

Even at private Internet companies, employees fear losing their jobs or worse if they discuss the program. “Sorry, but I’m not going to jail,” said one PalTel technician when asked for a list of the websites.

“Sorry, but I’m not going to jail” isn’t a very encouraging slogan for Fayyadism, but it is more accurate than pretending he is competently serving the Palestinian people.

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Google Grows a Conscience in China. Will Obama?

For the past two decades the Communist government of China has managed the unique trick of expanding its economy while maintaining its iron grip on the political life of the country. Western businesses have become willing accomplices in Beijing’s tyrannical rule in exchange for access to cheap labor and the world’s largest market. This has created a huge surge in China’s economic growth while solidifying the party’s hold on power. But it appears that one large Western company may have had enough. Yesterday, Google announced that it may soon close its Chinese operation as a result of the government’s attempt to hack into its computer system to penetrate the e-mail accounts of human-rights activists.

This is a reversal for Google, since in order to do business in China it had previously agreed to allow Communist censorship of its site in Chinese. That meant that in China, if you did a Google search for phrases such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Llama,” the response would come up blank. Google had rationalized that the benefits of Google’s resources to ordinary Chinese would outweigh the deleterious effect of their participation in the regime’s thought-control policies. But the recent attacks on Google’s database — part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent and appeals for democracy in China — from sources that are almost certainly controlled by Beijing have convinced Google that there is no way they can continue to operate as an unwitting ally to the world’s largest tyranny. Google says it will attempt to negotiate an agreement with the government to create an uncensored Internet, but if it fails to obtain satisfactory results, it will close their Chinese offices and shut down Google.cn.

This is an important milestone for Westerners doing business in China. The attacks on Google have shown again that for all the opportunity for profit in that vast nation as its economy has opened up, it still lacks the basic premise for a free-market system: the rule of law. Property rights remain at the mercy of an all-powerful state that reserves the right to suppress any individual, company, or group that threatens its monopoly on power. Individuals and companies can certainly do business in China and make money, but they do so only at the mercy of a vicious authoritarian government.

It isn’t clear whether Google is flexing its libertarian muscles in China because of a decision that competing with the more widely trafficked but also more heavily censored local search engine Baidu is pointless or because it feels that it is strong enough to force Beijing to back down. But no matter what the source of their motivation, it’s apparent that the latest provocations by the Communists have convinced Google’s leadership that they must take a stand. And for that they deserve the applause of all believers in civil liberties and freedom. For too long, the vast forces dedicated to accommodation and appeasement of Beijing have sought to convince Americans that Chinese don’t care about freedom and that we shouldn’t lift a finger to help them obtain it. This attitude has been reflected in the Obama administration’s conscious decision to downplay the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. Such weakness hasn’t earned America China’s help on other issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But it has resulted in a situation where the Communists think they can do virtually anything to the West and get away with it.

Who would have thought that an Internet company like Google, with much to lose, would show more backbone and commitment to freedom than the government of the United States? Is it too much to hope that Washington can take inspiration from Silicon Valley when it comes to China? Let’s hope that Google sticks to its guns on censorship. Whether it wins and forces Beijing to back down or even if it doesn’t, Google has thrown down the gauntlet of liberty to tyrants in a way that should make all Americans proud. It’s also given our elected leaders an example to follow.

For the past two decades the Communist government of China has managed the unique trick of expanding its economy while maintaining its iron grip on the political life of the country. Western businesses have become willing accomplices in Beijing’s tyrannical rule in exchange for access to cheap labor and the world’s largest market. This has created a huge surge in China’s economic growth while solidifying the party’s hold on power. But it appears that one large Western company may have had enough. Yesterday, Google announced that it may soon close its Chinese operation as a result of the government’s attempt to hack into its computer system to penetrate the e-mail accounts of human-rights activists.

This is a reversal for Google, since in order to do business in China it had previously agreed to allow Communist censorship of its site in Chinese. That meant that in China, if you did a Google search for phrases such as “Tiananmen Square massacre” or “Dalai Llama,” the response would come up blank. Google had rationalized that the benefits of Google’s resources to ordinary Chinese would outweigh the deleterious effect of their participation in the regime’s thought-control policies. But the recent attacks on Google’s database — part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent and appeals for democracy in China — from sources that are almost certainly controlled by Beijing have convinced Google that there is no way they can continue to operate as an unwitting ally to the world’s largest tyranny. Google says it will attempt to negotiate an agreement with the government to create an uncensored Internet, but if it fails to obtain satisfactory results, it will close their Chinese offices and shut down Google.cn.

This is an important milestone for Westerners doing business in China. The attacks on Google have shown again that for all the opportunity for profit in that vast nation as its economy has opened up, it still lacks the basic premise for a free-market system: the rule of law. Property rights remain at the mercy of an all-powerful state that reserves the right to suppress any individual, company, or group that threatens its monopoly on power. Individuals and companies can certainly do business in China and make money, but they do so only at the mercy of a vicious authoritarian government.

It isn’t clear whether Google is flexing its libertarian muscles in China because of a decision that competing with the more widely trafficked but also more heavily censored local search engine Baidu is pointless or because it feels that it is strong enough to force Beijing to back down. But no matter what the source of their motivation, it’s apparent that the latest provocations by the Communists have convinced Google’s leadership that they must take a stand. And for that they deserve the applause of all believers in civil liberties and freedom. For too long, the vast forces dedicated to accommodation and appeasement of Beijing have sought to convince Americans that Chinese don’t care about freedom and that we shouldn’t lift a finger to help them obtain it. This attitude has been reflected in the Obama administration’s conscious decision to downplay the issue of human rights in our dealings with China. Such weakness hasn’t earned America China’s help on other issues, such as stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But it has resulted in a situation where the Communists think they can do virtually anything to the West and get away with it.

Who would have thought that an Internet company like Google, with much to lose, would show more backbone and commitment to freedom than the government of the United States? Is it too much to hope that Washington can take inspiration from Silicon Valley when it comes to China? Let’s hope that Google sticks to its guns on censorship. Whether it wins and forces Beijing to back down or even if it doesn’t, Google has thrown down the gauntlet of liberty to tyrants in a way that should make all Americans proud. It’s also given our elected leaders an example to follow.

Read Less