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RNC chair: The Internet came from capitalism, not the government

Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel on Feb. 28 misrepresented the government's role in creating the Internet. (Video: C-SPAN)

In his effort to unseat President Barack Obama in 2012, Mitt Romney seized on a phrase that Obama had used during a campaign rally in Virginia. Arguing that U.S. success often leveraged communal resources such as roads, Obama said: “If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

Romney seized on the phrase “you didn’t build that” and the implication that private industry was somehow necessarily dependent upon the government. It became a rallying cry, the milquetoast 2012 equivalent of “Lock her up.” It didn’t work, obviously; Obama won reelection easily, and Romney eventually made his way to the Senate.

But the spirit of Romney’s claim lives on. On Thursday, speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel echoed that 2012 Romney argument. Perhaps it’s genetic: Until President Trump reportedly asked her to excise it, McDaniel went by Ronna Romney McDaniel. Mitt is her uncle.

She was talking about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-Minn.) bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, jumping off from that discussion to contrast Democrats broadly with her own party. The tack McDaniel took is a now-common one, framing the differences between the two parties as capitalism vs. socialism.

“It’s going to be a choice,” McDaniel said. “Are we going to want capitalism? Look at all the great achievements of our country: flight, cars, the Internet. Sorry, Al Gore. The Internet. None of that came from government. It came from innovation. It came from the greatness of America.”

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So here’s the thing. The Internet very much did come from government, quite literally.

This became a hot topic during the 2000 presidential campaign when Vice President Al Gore was criticized for saying he had invented the Internet. (Hence McDaniel’s aside.) As with Obama, that wasn’t really what Gore was saying: He was hyping (or overhyping) his role in encouraging the commercialization of the Internet. Gore should have said that he helped create the Internet as we now know it, which is more accurate, if still grandiose.

But as Scientific American wrote in 2012, the Internet itself derived directly from government work. It began as ARPAnet — named for the Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. In 1972, ARPA became DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

ARPAnet was a network that at first, in 1969, ran only between Utah and three universities in California. Slowly, it built outward and by 1977 covered locations on both coasts. During that period, DARPA scientists Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn invented a protocol for carrying traffic over the Internet called TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol. If you’ve ever heard of an “IP address,” in essence you’re hearing about Cerf and Kahn’s work.

We’re cruising through this awfully quickly, but: About a decade later, engineer and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. He created a way that the Internet could be used to more easily share information by developing a language that more easily allowed for documents to link to one another. And, voilà.

ARPA was the government. DARPA was the government. Berners-Lee was working for CERN, a European agency. Oh, and he’s British.

Certainly there were innovations that stemmed from the private sector — many innovations, and important ones. But saying that the Internet didn’t come from government is simply wrong.

Flight and cars? McDaniel is on more-solid ground, though the invention of the car is usually credited to Karl Benz. As a Michigander, though, she should also probably be aware of the central role the government has played in recent years in bolstering the continued viability of the automotive industry. A minor reason her uncle lost in 2012 was popular support for Obama’s intervention to support the automobile industry after the recession.

Incidentally, it’s worth quoting Obama’s “you didn’t build that” speech more fully:

“If you were successful,” Obama said, “somebody along the line gave you some help. … Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

He continued: “The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.”

As it turns out, that’s true.