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Inventing the “Invented” Myth

April 30th, 2006

Let’s get one thing straight: Al Gore never said that he “invented the Internet.”

There are a lot of myths out there perpetrated by conservatives. For example, the myth that Bill Clinton passed up an opportunity to bag Osama bin Laden, or the huge myth of the “liberal media.” Conservatives are excellent at starting and perpetuating these myths, which are believed by uncounted millions despite frequent and public debunking. The “invented the Internet” myth is perhaps one of the most pervasive; people still believe that election-campaign lie today.

This one started on March 9th, 1999, when Al Gore appeared on Wolf Blitzer’s “Late Edition” show on CNN. On the program, Gore made the following statement:

During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country’s economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system. [the full context of the quote in the interview can be reviewed here.]

I suppose I should say that it didn’t “start” with that quote, as the quote itself was reasonable–if poorly worded–and drew no reaction at all from Blitzer in the interview. Perhaps Blitzer was aware of the fact that Gore, since 1988, had written and championed legislation that helped establish the Internet beyond the government-and-academia DARPANet origins that began back in 1969.

An unkind (and dishonest) interpretation of Gore’s quote makes it seem like Gore was claiming that he single-handedly created the Internet. But that’s not what he said. He said that he took the initiative, that he took an early leadership role–which, by definition, means that he was not alone in the task, nor does it even mean that he was the only leader.

No, the real mythmaking started two days later on March 11. One technology columnist, Declan McCullagh of Wired News, wrote a story–highly inaccurate, at that–in which he spun the distortion, though he did accurately quote Gore’s statement–he just changed the evident meaning of Gore’s statement. He also got the facts wrong, quoting a conservative technology think tank as saying, “Gore played no positive role in the decisions that led to the creation of the Internet as it now exists — that is, in the opening of the Internet to commercial traffic.” However, the Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992 did exactly that, with Gore behind it, along with several other initiatives that indeed helped to create the Internet as we know it today.

The GOP, just a few days after Gore announced his candidacy for president, wasted no time in picking up the ball; then-House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) said:

“If the Vice President created the Internet then I created the Interstate highway system. Both were begun during the Eisenhower Administration and I think Ike actually deserves a little credit here.

“It’s common in Washington to steal an idea and claim it was yours all along. This strategy certainly worked for the Administration on welfare reform and tax cuts. But claiming credit for the Internet insults its real creators whose hard work and ingenuity can never be stolen.”

Note that in reporting on Armey’s statement, McCullagh first used the word “invent” to describe Gore’s statement, though he later denied this.

Upon this foundation, everybody in the media picked up on the distortion, to the point where I have even heard people claim that they heard a sound file of Gore himself saying “I invented the Internet.” [For those of you interested, here is a sound clip of the real statement by Gore.]

A good characterization of how Gore’s quote was intentionally skewed comes from Snopes:

If President Eisenhower had said in the mid-1960s that he, while president, “took the initiative in creating the Interstate Highway System,” he would not have been the subject of dozens and dozens of editorials lampooning him for claiming he “invented” the concept of highways or implying that he personally went out and dug ditches across the country to help build the roadway. Everyone would have understood that Ike meant he was a driving force behind the legislation that created the highway system, and this was the very same concept Al Gore was expressing about himself with his Internet statement.

The irony here is that Gore, in fact, was instrumental to the creation and popularization of the Internet as we know it today. Espousing research and funding for high speed networks as early as the 1970’s, Gore was active in putting forth legislation and otherwise popularizing the technology, culminating in the 1991 passage of the National High-Performance Computer Technology Act, otherwise known as the “Gore Act,” which funded, among other things, the first browsers. The fact is, all along the way, Gore was a strong proponent of the growth of the Internet, which in itself was largely responsible for the huge economic boom of the 90’s. Ironically, conservatives who enthusiastically credited Reagan with every bit of good economic news in the 80’s, churlishly denied Clinton and Gore any credit for the boom of the 90’s, claiming that it was the Internet that was responsible.

Gore was instrumental in creating a huge economic and industrial miracle worth countless trillions of dollars to the nation. In return for this, the GOP distorted his rightful claim, mocked him as a liar and made a laughingstock out of him. In an election won by only a few hundred votes, the value of the “invented the Internet” lie could easily have been worth that many votes in Florida.

Good to see that the GOP’s priorities are in order.

For the final word on Gore’s credit for taking a leadership role in the establishment of the Internet, read this letter praising Gore’s work, sent to Declan McCullagh from two guys named Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf, more commonly known as the founding fathers of the Internet. The letter included the following:

Al Gore was the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development.

No one person or even small group of persons exclusively “invented” the Internet. It is the result of many years of ongoing collaboration among people in government and the university community. But as the two people who designed the basic architecture and the core protocols that make the Internet work, we would like to acknowledge VP Gore’s contributions as a Congressman, Senator and as Vice President. No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time.

Last year the Vice President made a straightforward statement on his role. He said: “During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” We don’t think, as some people have argued, that Gore intended to claim he “invented” the Internet. Moreover, there is no question in our minds that while serving as Senator, Gore’s initiatives had a significant and beneficial effect on the still-evolving Internet. The fact of the matter is that Gore was talking about and promoting the Internet long before most people were listening. We feel it is timely to offer our perspective. …

[There follows a laundry list of Gore’s activities which helped to establish the Internet as we know it today.]

No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet than the Vice President. Gore has been a clear champion of this effort, both in the councils of government and with the public at large.

The Vice President deserves credit for his early recognition of the value of high speed computing and communication and for his long-term and consistent articulation of the potential value of the Internet to American citizens and industry and, indeed, to the rest of the world.

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