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Privatizing the Internet: Competing Visions and Chaotic Events, 1987–1995
January 2010 (vol. 32 no. 1)
pp. 10-22
Janet Abbate, Virginia Tech

The US National Science Foundation played a key role in the history of the Internet by overseeing its transition from government to private operation. In the process, NSF was forced to balance the competing visions of scientists, politicians, and private industry. This article describes the conflicts, trade-offs, and unexpected events that led to a technical and social transformation of the Internet.

1. J.S. Quarterman, "Revisionist Internet History," S/W Expert, May 1999, pp. 46, 49.
2. Presentations from "NSFnet: The Partnership that Changed the World" are archived at http://www.nsfnet-legacy.orgarchive.php.
3. Doug Gale of the Internet History Archive made this same point at the NSFnet celebration: "If you've looked at some of the popular histories about the Internet, one of the things that you'll notice is that there is a great deal of discussion about the ARPANET… and then there is suddenly a fast-forward to the World Wide Web" (see http://www.nsfnet-legacy.orgarchive.php). A recent notable exception is P.E. Ceruzzi's chapter on "The Internet before Commercialization," The Internet and American Business, W. Aspray and P.E. Ceruzzi eds, MIT Press, 2008, which devotes 11 pages to NSFnet. Many histories were written while these events were still unfolding. For example, in Computer: A History of the Information Machine (Basic Books, 1996), M. Campbell-Kelly, and W. Aspray observe, "As this book goes to press, the Internet is making the unsteady transition from public sector to private" (p. 299). Ceruzzi's earlier A History of Modern Computing (MIT, 1998), which ends its narrative in 1995, is explicit that the commercialization of the Internet is beyond its scope (p. 296). S. Segaller's Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (TV Books, 1998) discusses more recent events but skips over the NSFnet privatization entirely. My own book, Inventing the Internet (MIT Press, 1999), discusses the history of NSFnet at some length but does not attempt an in-depth analysis of privatization. As recently as 2007, R.C. Shah, and J.P. Kesan complained, "Scholars have neglected the privatization of the Internet's backbone network, despite the obvious significance of the US government turning control of a powerful new communication technology over to the private sector" ( "The Privatization of the Internet's Backbone Network," J. Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Mar. 2007, p. 93). Their article critiques the privatization process but gives almost no consideration to the issues that led NSF to consider privatization in the first place.
4. , The official NSF history, not surprisingly, is among those that depict privatization as necessary and good ( S. Harris and A. Hansen, "The Internet: Changing the Way We Communicate," National Science Foundation: America's Investment in the Future, 2000; index.jsp). Other histories that see Internet privatization as inevitable include F.R. Goldstein's The Great Telecom Meltdown (Artech House, 2005) and S. Segaller's Nerds 2.0.1: A Brief History of the Internet (TV Books, 1998). Internet pioneers Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf paint Al Gore as a champion of much-needed privatization: "As Vice President Gore promoted building the Internet both up and out, as well as releasing the Internet from the control of the government agencies that spawned it… Gore provided much-needed political support for the speedy privatization of the Internet when the time arrived for it to become a commercially-driven operation" ( R. Kahn, and V. Cerf, "Al Gore and the Internet," 28 Sept. 2000, http://www. politechbot.comp- 01394.html ). Critics of the privatization process include R.C. Shah, and J.P. Kesan, "The Privatization of the Internet's Backbone Network," J. Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Mar. 2007; G. Cook, "NSFnet Privatization: Policy Making in a Public Interest Vacuum," Internet Research, vol. 3, no. 1, 1993, pp. 3–9; N. Newman, Net Loss: Internet Prophets, Private Profits, and the Costs to Community, Penn State Univ. Press, 2002.
5. J. Abbate, Inventing the Internet, ch. 4, MIT Press, 1999. Originally there was a single protocol, TCP, which was split into TCP and IP (transport and Internet protocol layers).
6. D.M. Jennings et al., "Computer Networking for Scientists," Science, vol. 231, no. 474, 1986, pp. 943–950.
7. D.L. Mills, "The Fuzzball," Proc. ACM Special Interest Group on Data Comm. Symp., ACM Press, 1988, pp. 115–122.
8. These included BARRNet (in the San Francisco Bay area), MIDNet (in the midwest), NorthWestNet, NYSERNet (in the New York area), Sesquinet (in Texas), SURAnet (in the southeast), and WESTnet (in the Rocky Mountain region).
9. Jennings et al., "Computer Networking for Scientists," pp. 943–950. Authors Landweber, Fuchs, and Farber were academic computer scientists, while Adrion was deputy director of the Division of Computer Research at NSF.
10. Both Farber and Jennings of NSF asserted at the NSFnet celebration that scientists had needed to be "sold" on the value of a network and that the Science article was an effective sales pitch.
11. Jennings et al., "Computer Networking for Scientists," p. 950.
12. "Project Solicitation for Management and Operation of the NSFnet Backbone Network," NSF 87-37, Nat'l Science Foundation, 15 Jun. 1987, p. 1.
13. NSF, "Project Solicitation," p. 5.
14. "Review of NSFnet," Office of Inspector General, NSF, 23 Mar. 1993, pp. 25–26.
15. E.M. Aupperle, "Merit—Who, What, and Why. Part Two: The Middle Years, 1983-1993," Library Hi Tech, vol. 16, no. 1, 1998;
16. S. Wolff, "NSFnet: The Partnership that Changed the World," archive.php . See also K.D. Frazer, "NSFnet: A Partnership for High-Speed Networking. Final Report, 1987-1995," Merit, 1995, pp. 10, 24, 38–39.
17. "Review of NSFnet," Office of Inspector General, p. 9.
18. See Kahn and Cerf, "Al Gore and the Internet," which notes, "No one in public life has been more intellectually engaged in helping to create the climate for a thriving Internet." Seth Finkelstein documents how the media distorted Gore's fairly straightforward claim in 1999, "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet" (http://www.sethf.comgore/).
19. "In his many articles and speeches touting the bill, Gore often used an example of a little girl, living in a rural area, at work on a school project. Was she information-poor due to her physical location, far from the resources of large cities? No—the National Research and Education Network would give her the capability to dial into the Library of Congress—to collect information on dinosaurs." J.A. Polly, "NREN for All: Insurmountable Opportunity," Library J., vol. 118, no. 2, 1993, pp. 38–41.
20. Public Law No. 99-383, US Statutes at Large, 1986; G.M. Vaudreuil, "The Federal Research Internet Committee and the National Research Network," ACM Special Interest Group on Data Comm. Computer Comm. Rev., vol. 18, no. 3, 1988, p. 6.
21. "A Research and Development Strategy for High Performance Computing," Office of Science and Technology Policy, Nov. 1987, p. 18.
22. See J.M. Unger, The Fifth Generation Fallacy, Univ. Press, 1987. Japan's Fifth Generation effort is generally considered a failure because by the time its specialized systems had been created their capabilities were being matched by off-the-shelf hardware and software.
23. High Performance Computing Act of 1991, Public Law No. 102-94, US Statutes at Large, 1991.
24. For example, B. Kahin argued that the breakup had shown that it was better to directly fund needy customers than to have a regulated system that subsidized all users ( "Commercialization of the Internet: Summary Report," Internet Request for Comment 1192, Nov. 1990;
25. Frazer, "NSFnet," pp. 28, 29.
26. B. Chinoy and H.-W. Braun, "The National Science Foundation Network," San Diego Supercomputer Center, 1992, p. 7; see also p. 8, Figures 5 and 6.
27. "High Performance Computing and Networking for Science," background paper, OTA-BP-CIT-59. US Congress Office of Technology Assessment, Sept. 1989. p. 34.
28. "Review of NSFnet," Office of Inspector General, p.12.
29. S.R. Harris and E. Gerich, "Retiring the NSFnet Backbone Service: Chronicling the End of an Era," ConneXions, vol. 10, no. 4; nsfnetnsfnet_article.php.
30. Frazer, "NSFnet," pp. 30–32.
31. T. La Quey, The Internet Companion: A Beginner's Guide to Global Networking, Addison-Wesley, 1993.
32. B.M. Leiner et al., "The Past and Future History of the Internet," Comm. ACM, vol. 40, no. 2, 1997, p. 105. This section of the article, presumably authored by Wolff himself, implies that he had adopted a "privatization policy" for NSFnet as early as 1986 (p. 105). Ceruzzi's "The Internet before Commercialization" notes that the AUP did force a transition to commercial ISPs, "But the transition was awkward" (p. 28). The 1992 Boucher Bill amended NSF's authorizing act to allow some commercial use of the network; Ceruzzi sees this as a key moment leading to privatization (pp. 29–30).
33. Wolff, "NSFnet;" Kahin, "Commercialization of the Internet: Summary Report."
34. J.Q.J., "Re: Cygnus / Alternet dispute has settled down," 16 Oct. 1990, and J. Gilmore, "I'm prepared to be told 'no'," 17 Oct. 1990, messages to com-priv mailing list;
35. Kahin, "Commercialization of the Internet: Summary Report." This request for comments (RFC) "attempts to synthesize the issues for the benefit of those not present at the workshop" and was broadly circulated to the Internet community. Workshop participants included representatives from NSF, ARPA, OMB, OTA, Merit, the regional networks, the telecoms industry, university computer science departments, and think tanks.
36. For example, the 1993 Internet Companion states, "It's going to take a while for commercialization and privatization of these networks to occur" (LaQuey, The Internet Companion ).
37. Kahin, "Commercialization of the Internet: Summary Report."
38. This move also skirted Merit's contractual requirement to get prior approval from NSF's Division of Grants and Contracts. See "Review of NSFnet," Office of Inspector General, p. 46.
39. Cook, "NSFnet Privatization: Policy Making in a Public Interest Vacuum," part 2.
40. The NSF Final Report acknowledged, "The introduction of a new corporate structure to the NSFnet project… created controversy among members of the research and education community, as well as other members of the Internet community.… the NSFnet partners, including the NSF, found themselves in the midst of roiling debate." (Frazer, "NSFnet," pp. 31–32).
41. The protest eventually led to an investigation by the NSF Office of Inspector General, which while it found no major wrongdoing, agreed that NSF should have sought peer review and/or public comment for this decision. The report complained, "The record is utterly barren of documentation of NSF's reasoning for allowing commercial use of the network" (p. 31).
42. Cook, "NSFnet Privatization: Policy Making in a Public Interest Vacuum."
43. Goldstein's The Great Telecom Meltdown, p. 65.
44. CIX was formally established as a trade association in Aug. 1991. Cook, "NSFnet Privatization: Policy Making in a Public Interest Vacuum."
45. C. Anderson, "The Rocky Road to a Data Highway," Science, vol. 260, no. 5111, 1993, pp. 1064–1065.
46. S. Wolff, "NSFnet Backbone services after November, 1992," message to com-priv and farnet mailing lists, 29 Nov. 1991; 1991-11msg00012.html. Wolff added, "There is substantial agreement in the networking community that, while providing for continued Backbone services, the NSF should assure both that the incumbent is not favored and that there is an equitable opportunity for other firms to participate in the long-haul TCP/IP networking business."
47. Public Law 102-94, section 102(c).
48. Public Law 102-94, section 102(g).
49. Public Law 102-94, section 201. NSF received an appropriation of $213 million for the first year of the program.
50. For example, Fred J. Howlett the division manager for high-speed data networks at AT&T, told the New York Times in July 1990, "The legislative momentum behind funding a high-speed computer network is strong right now. If there is any indication that corporations might go ahead without Government support, it wouldn't be helpful to the legislative effort." J. Markoff, "Discussion Are Held On Fast Data Network," New York Times,16 Jul. 1990.
51. Abbate's Inventing the Internet, ch. 6.
52. Frazer, "NSFnet," p. 41.
53. Ceruzzi, "The Internet before Commercialization," p. 24.
54. High Performance Computing and High Speed Networking Applications Act of 1993, H.R. 1757, section 2. This bill was never enacted into law.
55. Ceruzzi, "The Internet before Commercialization," p. 31.
56. Shah and Kesan, "The Privatization of the Internet's Backbone Network," pp. 100–104.
57. See also B.M. Frischmann, "Privatization and Commercialization of the Internet Infrastructure: Rethinking Market Intervention into Government and Government Intervention into the Market," Columbia Science and Technology Law Rev., vol. II, 2000–2001, pp. 49–52.
58. Goldstein's The Great Telecom Meltdown, p. 67; Newman's Net Loss, pp. 74–76.
59. Shah and Kesan, "The Privatization of the Internet's Backbone Network," p. 103. They note, "Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell acknowledged that although he could not stop backbone providers from shutting down their service, he could prevent phone service from being stopped." See also Newman's Net Loss, p. 78.
60. kc claffy, "The Future of the Internet: Q&A with kc claffy," San Diego Supercomputer Center, 2006; .
61. Newman's Net Loss, p. 77. Similarly, Frischmann argued, "[E]ven if the market were to perform perfectly, it still would undersupply society with Internet interconnection infrastructure over the long-run because market demand for the Internet is only some fraction of social demand" ("Privatization and Commercialization of the Internet Infrastructure," p. 69). Much literature exists on the "digital divide" in the US; for example, N. Dickard and D. Schneider, "The Digital Divide: Where We Are Today," George Lucas Educational Foundation, 2002; http://www. edutopia.orgdigital-divide-where-we-are-today .
62. "Top 25 Censored Stories for 1996: Number 4, The Privatization of the Internet," Project Censored, 1996; categoryy-1996/.
63. Merit's Elise Gerich acknowledged that this would have been possible (though clearly not desirable, in her view): "The network we could have built with only NSF's money would not have been as robust. It would have provided connections, but it wouldn't have had the same degree of redundancy" (Frazer, "NSFnet," p. 32 ).
64. Goldstein's The Great Telecom Meltdown, pp. 66–67.
65. For net neutrality see http:/www.savetheinternet. com. See also Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, H.R. 5353, 2008.
66. "Fact Sheet: NSF and High-Performance Networking Infrastructure," Nat'l Science Foundation, 31 Dec. 2003; .

Index Terms:
Internet, networking, NSFnet, privatization, NREN, Al Gore
Janet Abbate, "Privatizing the Internet: Competing Visions and Chaotic Events, 1987–1995," IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, vol. 32, no. 1, pp. 10-22, Jan. 2010, doi:10.1109/MAHC.2010.24
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