Ed Driscoll

THE INTERNET PRESIDENT: James Pinkerton

THE INTERNET PRESIDENT: James Pinkerton writes:

Reagan invented the Internet. Well, OK, that’s not exactly right, but his administration made the key decision that opened the Internet up to commercial utilization. But wait just a doggone nano-second, you might be saying, didn’t Al Gore invent the Net? Or didn’t he at least try to take credit for it in 1999, when he told CNN, “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet”?

Of course, what started out as Arpanet reaches back to the late 60s, when Gore was still in school. But as for “creating the Internet” as THE Internet, one might turn to a 2000 book written by Reed Hundt, who declares himself to be one of Gore’s biggest fans. Hundt’s memoir of his tenure as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 1993-1997, You Say You Want a Revolution: A Story of Information Age Politics, was written, in part, to help Gore’s presidential prospects; in a talk four years ago to the New America Foundation, he described himself as “Al’s lieutenant,” sent to the FCC to “implement his agenda.” Yet even so, the author’s basic honesty got in the way of his political advocacy.

On page 133 of his book, Hundt noted that a “far-sighted, or accidentally smart” ruling by the Reagan-era FCC prohibited phone companies from levying “access charges” on data, as distinct from voice transmissions. “In the absence of the FCC’s decision,” Hundt writes, “the Internet would have been so expensive that [founder Marc] Andreesen’s Netscape would not have been a hiccup, much less one of the first bubble stocks of the Internet.” Let’s pause over this for a moment. Even a pro-Gore Democrat concedes that the biggest pro-Internet inflection point dates back to the early 80s. In fact, if one looks up the case — MTS and WATS Market Structure Order, 97 FCC 2d 682 (1983) — one sees that the FCC was then chaired by Mark Fowler, a Reagan appointee. And so Gore looks less like a prime mover, and more like a free rider.

And Reagan, meanwhile, gets credit — or should get credit — for picking free-market heroes such as Fowler. Did the Gipper ever know about the Net? Maybe not, but it hardly matters; even through lean times, such as the 70s, he never lost his faith in the genius of the American people and in the almost-magical powers of the free market. So if someone had told him that American enterprise had created a Next Big Thing that was adding trillions of economic output, he would probably have said, “Well, of course.”

Pinkerton adds, “A quarter-century after my first contact with Ronald Reagan, I now see that he was right: our best days as Americans are still ahead of us, as they are always ahead of us — because there are no natural limits on the capacity of free minds. Reagan knew it then; I finally know it now.”