Al Gore and the Internet

With the forthcoming book almost complete, there are one or two matters that I had to get to the bottom of. Foremost among them, Al Gore’s involvement in the development of the Internet, and the controversy that surrounded this question in the 2000 presidential election…

For a brief moment during the 2000 presidential election in the United States the history of the Internet became an issue of much debate. Al Gore, the Democratic Party candidate, came under attack because, it was reported, he had claimed to have invented the Internet. According to one estimate more than 4,800 television, newspaper and magazine items made reference to the purported claim during the campaign.

In the 1980s Gore had been among a cohort of so-called ‘Atari Democrats’, a group of Democratic Party politicians who believed that computing held the prospect of future prosperity. Gore raised the prospect that the US, despite its early mover advantage in networking, was loosing this edge as other countries developed their own national networks. In 1986 Gore, then in the Senate, sponsored a bill requiring the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to undertake a study of the challenges and opportunities for networking and computing research including supercomputers at university and federal research centers. In response, Gordon Bell, one of the senior figures at DEC, chaired a committee on computing and digital infrastructure of the Federal Coordinating Council on Science, Engineering and Technology. The resulting report, released in November 1987 contained the main features that would appear in the 1991 High Performance Computing and Communication Act. These included the need to expand the ARPA work on the Internet to connect the networking efforts of NASA, Department of Energy, NSF, and ARPA; and to establish a 1.5 Mbps network that would connect between 200 and 300 US research institutions, and in the longer term, to develop a 3 gigabyte (Gbps) network within fifteen years. The 1991 Act was informally known as the Gore Act, and it set the conditions for the next phase of the Internet.

The controversy in 2000 arose from an interview that Gore  participated in with the television program, CNN Late Edition, on 9 March 1999. Had any one of the writers of the almost five thousand pieces on the incident consulted the transcript of Gore’s statement they would perhaps have learned that he had never, in fact, used the word ‘invent’ at all. The transcript reports that Gore said:

‘during my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet’.

Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, two individuals uniquely placed to comment on the matter, defended his record. Gore, they said,

‘deserves significant credit. … No other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time’.

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