register   login table of contents

Al Gore and the Internet

originally posted: November 20, 2004
last updated: June 12, 2007

This essay was written at a time when Al Gore had pretty much completely faded from the headlines, before he re-emerged as a leader in educating the world about the dangers of global warming. I have decided not to "update" this essay in the light of those and other later developments. They teach us much about Gore's personal resilience, but do not really shed any additional light on the mishandling of information by the media that is the real theme of this essay.

I started writing this article about six months before the 2004 presidential election. I'd wanted to write a bit about misinformation in the media, drawing examples from the 2000 presidential race between Al Gore and George Bush.

In the 2000 race Gore was portrayed as an habitual liar and boaster, based on a series of stories in which he made absurd sounding claims, including the claim that the heros of the novel Love Story were based on him and his wife, the claim that as a child he had worked as a manual laborer on a farm, and, most notoriously, his claim to have invented the Internet.

In each case, the widely circulated versions of what Gore said were somewhat distorted, and in each case what he actually said appears, upon examination, to be very close to the truth. Gore never said that his wife was a model for a character in the novel, and the author has been quoted as saying that the male hero of the book was in fact based on a combination of Al Gore and Al Gore's college roommate, actor Tommy Lee Jones. Gore was the son of a millionaire, who happened to own a farm and believed that hard labor built character, so Gore did spend many of his summers working on a farm. And Gore really did have quite a lot to do with making the Internet what it is today.

One would like to believe that the truth about fairly straight-forward factual questions like these would eventually come out in the media. And, in fact, it did. In every case, careful reading reveals that the truth was eventually reported accurately. However, though it was reported, it was not reported widely, and it was largely not noticed by the public. I suspect that even today the thing most Americans remember about Al Gore, besides his loss to George Bush, is his claim to have invented the Internet. It's rather sad that what Gore is best remembered for is a mockery of the most notable accomplishment of a distinguished career as a legislator.

I found it rather puzzling that these criticisms of Gore somehow stuck. It's not astonishing that Republicans tried to characterise him as a liar. It's merely disappointing that most media outlets simply parroted the story without doing any serious fact checking. But why wasn't Gore able to refute the charges? During his election campaign, he was probably among the most listened to people in the country. Why wasn't he able to clear his record? Why does he appear to have barely tried?

My original hope was to discuss the broader issue and only devote a paragraph or two to the actual question of whether or not Gore was telling the truth about the Internet. But I wanted to make sure that what I said was reasonably accurate so I started Googling my way into the story.

Man-oh-man what a bottomless pit that was. When the Internet talks about the Internet, it really talks! And talks! And then talks some more! And as you dig into question of what Gore really did do, the story grows more and more complicated. I tried to simplify it, to boil it down to its essential core, but I soon decided that the complexity was part of the essential core. And I thought I saw a few interesting things going on in the story that hadn't been much discussed yet. I figured I could use that as an excuse to add still more talk about Gore and the Internet.

So I've decided to devote a whole article to the rather dead topic of Al Gore and the Internet. It's not a subject I set out to write about, but I think the story still has significance, and throws at least a little light on John Kerry's failure in 2004.

What Al Gore Said

On March 11, 1999, Wolf Blitzer interviewed Al Gore for CNN. In the midst of a rambling reply giving reasons why voters should prefer Gore over his primary race opponent Bill Bradley, Gore spoke the following few sentances:
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.

Internet Mythology and History

To most people, Gore's claim seems instantly ridiculous. When we think of the creation of the Internet, we think of scraggly-haired computer geeks in university computer labs soldering components into circuit boards late into the night. We think of programmers chugging Coke in front of computer terminals as they piece together the software that will bring their vision to reality. We think of entrepreneurs in sunglasses investing in garage-based start-up companies that will one day be multi-billion dollar corporations. We visualize a grass roots, bottom-up technological revolution, driven by little people with grand obsessions that happened to turn out to be visionary. If the government had known what was happening, they probably would have outlawed it. Al Gore fits into that vision exactly nowhere.

Except that vision is a myth, a backward projection of our perceptions of the Internet today. Oh, all those people did exist, and the Internet would not exist without them, but bringing the Internet into being was anything but a grass roots process. The Internet spent it's first two and a half decades in a U. S. government incubator supported by many billions of dollars of the taxpayer's money, appropriated for that express purpose by Congress. And that's where Al Gore has a place in the history of the Internet.

The Internet's granddaddy was something called ARPANET. It was the first test of the basic technology that drives the Internet today. It was built with government funding from the military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As many news reports have pointed out, Al Gore was in law school when the ARPANET project was started in 1967, and, as far fewer point out, he had just completed Army basic training when the first Internet connection was established in 1969. He obviously had nothing to do with the net at this point.

But ARPANET was not the Internet, any more than the Wright Flyer was an international air travel network. There was a huge amount of technological development and infrastructure construction still to be done. For one thing, it had to be grown substantially before it could take off. The Internet could not have captured the imagination of large numbers of people in the 1990's if did not connect to a lot of interesting places, and it could not have attracted business investment if there were not already a lot of people using it. Business entities like "Internet Service Providers" had to be invented, and the government regulations that would govern (or not govern) their existance had to be developed. The creation of the Internet had begun, but it was far from complete.

ARPANET grew slowly, connecting only a few universities and research labs. Universities started seeing real advantages in networking, but DARPA was not eager to be running a network for academics. Around 1984, a government agency better suited to the task, the National Science Foundation (NSF), launched a new network to support academic research. They called their network NSFNET and based it on the basic technology pioneered by ARPANET. Many other networks were being created by different organizations during this period, some interconnected, some not, but it was NSFNET that most directly evolved into the modern Internet.

Initially NSFNET was restricted to non-commerical use only. Since it was funded entirely by taxpayer money, it was thought inappropiate for anyone to use it to seek a profit. The driving purpose of NSFNET was to give researchers at universities all over the nation access to a number of supercomputer centers that the NSF had established, but very early the decision was made to make it available to all academic users, not just those accessing supercomputers.

I've seen no evidence that Gore had anything to do with the creation of NSFNET. My impression was that the initiative for NSFNET came mostly from within the staff of the NSF, a mixture of academics and bureaucrats.

The decade during which the NSF operated the net was a period of important development. There was substantial growth both in capacity and number of connections. The original NSFNET was based on 56kbps backbone connections - hardly faster than the connections most Americans have to their homes today. In July 1988, after it's first major upgrade, NSF net tied together 170 campus networks and was carrying 152 million packets per month. By 1992 6000 networks were connected. By the end of 1994, after two more major upgrades to the backbone, it was carrying 17.8 trillion packets per month, an almost 100,000 fold increase since 1988.

There was simultaneously a steady process of commercialization. Almost from the beginning, the National Science Foundation deliberately contracted backbone upgrades and other tasks out to commercial organizations, with the aim of developing network expertize in the private sector. The conditions of use were revised in 1991 to allow commercial traffic. In 1995 the NSF turned operation of the Internet over to commercial providers, finally ending 25 years of government incubation of the net.

So, in fact, the US government played a fundamentally important role in bringing the Internet into existance. Our government's deliberate and intelligent efforts to back the growth of the Internet were well ahead of other nations in the world, explaining in no small part why the Internet first flowered in the United States. The notion that the network was created entirely from the bottom up, without the knowledge or encouragement of the government is simply false.

What Al Gore Did

Gore served as a Representative from Tennessee in the House between 1976 and 1984. I've seen some hints that he had interest in net-related issues during this time (including one remark from Newt Gingrich), but it probably didn't amount to much.

Gore then moved up to the Senate, serving there from 1985 to 1992 when he left the Senate to become Vice President. As a senator, he became the earliest and most prominent advocate for networking in the upper levels of government. Gore's father had been the sponsor of the legislation that funded the interstate highway system, and he clearly saw the developing Internet as a similar opportunity, where timely government investment in infrastructure would pay off in substantial benefit to the nation. Though he did not invent the term "information superhighway," he obviously liked the analogy to his father's work. If you remember hearing the term at all, then you remember Gore's pro-Internet campaign. In speechs and in articles in popular magazines like Byte and Scientific American, he popularized the term and with it the concept that the government had a key role to play in fostering its development. He introduced his first Internet-related legislation on the anniversary of the date his father introduced the highway bill.

Ultimately Gore introduced a whole series of bills. They are listed below:

Bill Number Bill Title Introduced Fate
99th Congresss S.2594 Supercomputer Network Study Act of 1986 6/24/1986 Passed?
100th Congress S.2918 National High-Performance Computer Technology Act of 1988 10/19/1988 No action taken
101st Congress S.1067 High-Performance Computing Act of 1990 5/18/1989 Passed Senate, Failed in House
102nd Congress S.272 High-Performance Computing Act of 1991 1/24/1991 Passed
102nd Congress S.2937 Information Infrastructure and Technology Act of 1992 7/1/1992 No action taken

Gore's 1986 bill called for a study of the possibility of creating fiber optic links to supercomputer centers, requiring the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to issue a report on the subject. Though references differ on whether Gore's 1986 bill was ever actually passed, the report it called for was issued in November of 1987. It expressed concern that the U.S. was falling behind Europe and Japan in the development of supercomputers and high speed networks, and recommended creation of a program to advance research in those areas.

Gore's 1988, 1989, and 1991 bills were attempts to create such a program. During this period the White House was reluctant to do so, but in early 1991, just before the Gore Bill finally passed, the White House proposed in its budget to fund a High Performance Computing and Communications Program. Gore's 1991 bill defined that program and authorized spending more than a billion dollars over the next five years on supercomputing and network projects. This funding was mostly under the control of the NSF, but also parts also went to DARPA and NIST.

These efforts contributed substantially to allowing NSFNET to grow into the modern Internet. Interesting discussions of their significance can be found in a 1992 paper advocating further expansion of the net, 1993 testimony from the head of OSTP, and Vinton Cerf's description of the evolution of the Internet. All give Gore primary credit for this legislation, and stress it's importance in the development of the Internet.

During the long debate leading up to the 1991 bill, Al Gore actually pushed to extend the the initiative beyond serving the academic and research communities, but did not succeed. (Some sources claim that his 1991 bill opened NSFNET to commerical use, but, although the NSF did open it in 1991, Gore's bill was not the reason.) Gore's 1992 bill was aimed at extending network connectivity to primary and secondary schools, libraries, hospitals, and industry. The bill was not acted upon before Congress adjorned, and Gore could not reintroduce it in the next session because he became Vice President in the next year. As Vice President, Gore did remain active in Internet related issues, but we will not describe those in detail here, since his claim refers specifically to the work he did as a congressman.

Gore pursued a vision of the Internet that is substantially different from what most people think of as the Internet today. The "information superhighway" he spoke about reached into homes, schools and businesses, but his vision sounds much more orderly and well regulated than the net we know today. It was more like watching PBS or visiting a library. There isn't much there about commerical use or person-to-person communications. There was a large emphasis on supercomputers, which seem very peripheral to the Internet as we know it today. Some modern critics have taken this different vision as evidence that "he doesn't get it," but that's hindsight talking. At the time, nobody got the "it" those authors are talking about. If you are going to dismiss Gore's efforts on that basis, then you'll soon be denying that anybody contributed anything to the development of the Internet before the mid 1990's.

An interesting coincidence can be pointed out that gives evidence that spending money on supercomputer centers was not entirely irrelevant to the growth of the Internet. One of the supercomputer centers that received funding from Gore's 1991 bill was the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). In 1993, the first graphical web browser, NCSA Mosaic, was developed there. All modern web browsers are derivatives of NCSA Mosaic.

It's also important not to limit our assessment of the impact of Gore's work to the bills he sponsored. His advocacy, and the debate triggered by all his bills, passed or not, may have been at least as important in building a consensus within the government that the Internet was worth investing in. Many issues still currently relevant were raised in the bills and in the discussions of the bills, including security, protection of copyrights, ensuring universal access, and balancing private and government involvement. During this time, Congress was presumably approving annual NSF budgets that included money for the clearly important NSFNET, the direct ancestor of the modern Internet. Gore's "information superhighway" boosterism surely helped make getting funding for such programs easier.

The impact of such funding bills on research often goes beyond the research directly funded by it. From my own experience in academia, I can testify that when large amounts of funding are offered in a research area, researchers flock to that area like lemmings. I was a Computer Science professor during this era, and saw it with my own eyes. I remember talks by the department chairman outlining this new funding opportunity to the faculty, and I remember credit for the initative going to Al Gore on the second slide of the talk. I remember all sorts of academics trying to figure out what they had to offer to this research effort. Even I morphed briefly into a supercomputer expert to help my department win an NSF infrastructure grant in 1992. The ability of such funding to concentrate the attention of the academic community is dramatic, and at the time, the academic community was still most of the Internet.

In the end though, it is difficult to assess how big Gore's actual impact on the development of the Internet was. The funding he won for the development of the Internet actually arrived somewhat late in the Internet's incubation period, and the impact of his earlier advocacy is much harder to document. But it is not that hard to imagine an alternate history in which the government, instead of encouraging the growth of the open Internet, tried to convert it into a tightly controlled public utility. Gore got the government behind the Internet, and an important effect of that may have been to get it out of the way of the Internet.

There is no question that Gore was among the very first in the government to see the value of high-speed, wide-area computer networks, and that he did take initiative to give a major boost to the development of that the technology and to make it accessable by more people, a boost that undoubted brought us closer to the Internet as we know it today. As Newt Gingrich said during a CSPAN broadcast of an American Political Science Association colloquium on September 1, 2000

In all fairness, it's something Gore had worked on a long time. Gore is not the Father of the Internet, but in all fairness Gore is the person who, in the Congress, most systematically worked to make sure that we got to an Internet.

Gore's claim to have "taken the initiative in creating the Internet" was perhaps not as well phrased as it might be. He was speaking off the cuff, after all. His next sentence, in which he takes "the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives," could use a little word smithing too. But if we take "the Internet" to mean the independent creature that came into being in 1995 when the NSF passed management of the net to commerical providers, and not the incubator baby that the government nursed along up to that point, then, yes, Al Gore's initiatives were fundamental to it's creation.

If there was as much substance behind 90% of the claims politicians make, then, well, politicians would be much quieter people. We'd never again have to hear anyone talk about how much unemployment dropped during their first term in office, unless they were willing to demonstrate exactly how policies they enacted brought that about.

What the Media Said

In the CNN interview, Wolf Blitzer took no notice of Gore's claim and simply proceeded with the next question. One presumes he's heard a lot of politicians claim a lot of things. Within the day, however, an article by Declan McCullagh appeared in Wired News attacking Gore on his claim. Though strongly tilted against Gore, the article actually got most of the basic facts right. It quoted Gore correctly and in context, and recognized that he did have a longer than average record of activity on Internet issues, but it ridiculed everything from the significance of his legislation to his pronounciation of "router". It pointed out that Gore was still in law school, when work on the design of ARPANET began. For an "expert opinion" on Gore's role in the development of the net, McCullagh went to Steve Allen, the vice president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, which he accurately identified as a conservative organization.

Allen was quoted 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". Well, that's true enough. Gore did a lot, but only a little in the direction of opening the Internet to commercial traffic. Commercialization was an important change, but hardly the beginning and ending of the creation of the Internet. This rather weak denial of Gore's claim was, however, enough to get the ball rolling.

The Wired News story got picked very quickly by Republican leaders and other media outlets. Either Wired News was more widely read than I would have guessed at the time, or there is truth in the story that Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson faxed copies off to Republican leaders and news outlets. The day after Gore's comment, House Majority Leader Dick Armey provided the full quote and then joked, "If the vice president created the Internet, then I created the interstate highway system." Two days later, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott claimed to have invented the paperclip, and two days later, on March 16, Dan Quayle said "If Gore invented the Internet, I invented spell-check". Never one to be left out, Bill Clinton joked to the Gridiron Club, "Al Gore invented the Internet. For the record, I, too, am an inventor. I invented George Stephanopoulos."

So within days after Gore's statement had been transmuted from "took the initiative in creating" to "created" to "invented". Unsurprisingly, a study that asked English-speaking people not familiar with Gore to evaluate the truthfulness of claims using those three phrasings showed that each new revision placed Gore in a worse light.

The story also appeared in newspapers all over the country, generally giving a greatly abbreviated version of McCullagh's already minimal arguments that Gore did no such thing, and rewording the quotation in the same ways with equal speed. The first media reference to Gore "inventing" the Internet appeared on March 15 in USA Today. This version was all over the papers and TV news within days, and even to this day is still repeated.

By March 21, newspapers were connecting this to other accounts of Gore lieing, including the the Love Story and hog farming stories (both equally inaccurate), saying these stories demonstrated a pattern of boastful exaggeration. The pattern existed, but it was almost entirely media generated.

On March 23, Wired News published a followup article from Declan McCullagh, who originally broke the story. Curiously, the very author who originated the story, who had quoted Gore accurately, and had done some independent, albeit biased analysis of the story, was now simply echoing the distorted echos of his own story. He says Gore "claimed to have invented the Internet". He refers back to the Love Story story and hog farming stories.

Nineteen months after the first article in Wired News, McCullagh published an article pointing out that news stories had deviated substantially from facts and had underappreciated Gore's actual contribution the the Internet. He did not mention that his original article had seriously understated Gore's contribution or that his second article had echoed the distorted version of Gore's claim.

Ultimately the impression that most Americans were left with was that Gore had claimed to invent the Internet as a completely random, grandeous boast. A claim to have invented sunshine would have been no more absurd. Spun the right way, the story of Gore's early efforts for the Internet could have played strongly in his favor. After all, the Internet was just about the best thing that had happened to the US economy in decades, and to have worked as hard as Gore did to promote it long before its value was obvious to others shows leadership and vision and an ability to make government work for the general good. What more could you want from a presidential candidate? Instead, Gore's involvement with the Internet became a political liability.

What the Internet Said

Now, if Al Gore really was a major contributor to the development of the Internet, you'd think that all the knowledgable people on the Internet would rise up in his defense.

And, in fact, many did. Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn, the designers of the basic architecture and core protocols of the Internet, issued several statements commending Gore's contributions to the development of the Internet. They said the vice president was "the first political leader to recognize the importance of the Internet and to promote and support its development" and "no other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time."

John Doerr, co-founder of Netscape, and Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote that "nobody in Washington understands those (technology) dynamics, and has done more to encourage them than Al Gore." Many others also spoke in Gore's favor, and not a single person with significant involvement in the development of the Internet could be found to speak against Gore.

But the Internet's celebration of Al Gore was very far from universal. Many self-appointed Internet pundits spoke against him. Declan McCullagh, the Wired journalist that wrote the original story criticising Bush's comments, is a visible example. Not all political ideologies manage to find a place in the Democratic or Republican Parties. Among those small homeless groups we find those I'll call the Internet Freedom Fighters. They believe that the Internet should be as free and unregulated as possible. Many Internet Freedom Fighters prefer to believe in the myth that the government had no significant role in the creation of the Internet, that it was primarily a product of ground-up creation by universities and businesses. They strongly oppose attempts by the government to censor the Internet, such as the Communications Decency Act of 1995 (CDA). They also oppose infringements on privacy on the net, seeking universal access to strong encryption, and opposing concepts like the Clipper Chip program which sought to allow only encryption methods that the government could read.

Both of these programs had had strong bi-partisan support so the Internet Freedom Fighters were pretty thoroughly disgusted with Democrats and Republicans alike. Gore, whatever his contribution to the Internet might have been, had been a visible proponent of the Clipper Chip and no opponent to the CDA. True blue Internet Freedom Fighters did not like him. For Al Gore to publically claim to have created the Internet was to wave a red flag in front of the Internet Freedom Fighters.

I think this, rather than any particular sympathy for the Republican party, was the motivation between McCullagh's original article. For such people, Vinton Cerf's defense of Gore was simply proof that Cerf had fallen from purity. McCullagh said in response to Cerf's defense, "Cerf is an executive at a large telecommunications company, and I suspect he acts more like a Washingtonian than a technologist nowadays." Obviously the testamony of such a tarnished creature needs to be discounted if it contradicts our favorite myths about the creation of the Internet, even if he was actually there at the time.

I believe that these kinds of feelings substantially dampened the defense of Al Gore on the Internet. Many people who came to the Internet more recently simply don't care to accept him as their forefather for reasons that have nothing to do with his actual role in the development of the Internet.

What the Al Gore Didn't Say

The Republicans definately ran with Gore's Internet statement. The Bush campaign inserted references to it into their television ads, and George Bush made reference to it during the debates. Oddly though, neither Al Gore nor his campaign seems to have put forth any defense of his claim. One would expect that some official defense of Gore's record on the Internet from the people who knew it best would have appeared, but there was nothing. Everything I've been able to find on Gore's record of work on the Internet is pieced together from independent government and media sources. There is nothing from Gore or the Democratic party. The most Gore did was joke mildly about it.

Presumably this was a deliberate choice by the Gore campaign. Perhaps they thought addressing the criticism would legitimize it. But the end effect was pretty much the same thing we saw again in 2004. The Democrats pretty much stood by while the Republicans defined their candidate.

But actually defending Gore isn't all that simple a process. In his September 30, 2000, Wired followup, McCullagh reviews the comments from Cerf, Kahn, Doerr and Joy, and then concludes by saying, "but, for some odd reason, they don't claim that Gore invented the Internet." This highlights the problem. The charge against Gore was a simple one. "Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, which, of course, he did not." A simple counter to the charge would be either (1) "he never said that" or (2) "he really did invent the Internet." These are the kinds of answers that McCullugh pretended were needed to counter the original story, but they would have been absurd. The actual honest answers were (1) "he didn't say exactly that" and (2) "he sort of did do what he said."

Al Gore was a senator, one of 100. No senator does much of anything single-handledly. He needs at least 50 other people voting with him to pass any legislation. To try to take sole credit for anything is not only absurd, but an insult to the contributions of your colleagues in the Senate. Though it is true that no other elected offical had as much to do with getting the government to do the right thing with respect to the Internet, lots of people helped. It is almost impossible to exactly measure what Gore's contribution was. It's a very complex question.

Presidents and governers routinely take credit for everything that happens during their time in office. We know, of course, that much of what is done during any administration is actually done by underlings, of which chief executives have vastly more than Senators do, but we are willing to give credit to the executives, if not for doing it all themselves, then for appointing good people and leading them in the right direction. I suspect that if the first President Bush had claimed that his administration had overseen the expansion and commercialization of the Internet, then few would have questioned it, although, in fact, his adminstration rather resisted getting involved, and the President personally showed little interest in it. He was captain when the ship sailed in that direction, and so we grant him some credit, earned or not. Gore's role, though much larger, is also much more complex and harder to document. He sponsored some bills and cast one vote in favor of each one, but that's the smallest part of what he did. The actual contribution that his advocacy of the cause made is almost impossible to demonstrate.

The basic problem is that it is very hard to drive out a simple distortion with a complex truth. The whole case against Gore can be fit into a one-sentance joke on late night TV. The case for him requires at least a couple paragraphs, and possibly a essay as long as this one, and isn't even likely to end up sounding conclusive. That being the case, it is obvious that the complex story is going to reach many fewer ears than the simple story. It's not that people are stupid, just that they have too much else to think about to have time to get so deep into an issue that is of so little importance to most of them.

So I suspect that the Gore campaign decided that since a defense of his record couldn't fit into a sound-bite, it was just better to drop the whole thing. Although the generation of good sound bites is certainly vital to a modern campaign, I don't believe that the campaign has to be so single-layered. Why couldn't the campaign have produced a detailed account of the history of Gore's advocacy of the Internet, together with statements endorsing the significance of his contribution from a variety of respected people, and put it up on the campaign's website? The candidate wouldn't try to fit the whole story into a sound bite. He would only have to give a short statement that he had, in fact, been a leader in getting the government to invest in growing the Internet to a viable level, making possible one of the nation's most important new industries. Anyone who wants to know the complexities can look them up on the Internet. This way you can embrace the complex truth and have your sound bite too.

view 7 reader comments
Powered by Backtalk version 1.4.5 / Wasabi version 1.0.3 - Copyright 1996-2005, Jan Wolter and Steve Weiss