The Origins and Future of Open Source Software

Why the Government Withdrew from Defense of Open Standards

So why the withdrawal by the government in the first place? The retreat of federal involvement has been based on a combination of ideological opposition, private industry desires, and the disappearance of a stable government bureaucracy able to assume the role of regulator. This has left Internet development increasingly in the hands of self-interested companies seeking commercial advantage rather than maximum innovation and compatibility for consumers.

The ideological assault on federal involvement in further developments of the Internet is strongly related to the end of the Cold War and the withdrawal of the "national security" basis for much of the federal government's economic involvement since World War II. It was probably not a coincidence that ARPA director Craig Fields, criticized for ARPA's involvement in trying to direct the development of high technology, was fired by the Bush Administration in 1989--the same year as the fall of the Berlin Wall. While the Clinton administration made some gestures in asserting a public interest in the development of what they called the National Information Infrastructure, privatization proceeded apace. What limited funds the Clinton Administration allocated for encouraging community and local government development of the Internet was vociferously opposed by conservatives in Congress and, with the Republican takeover of the Congress in 1994, those funds were initially zeroed out and in the end sharply limited, even as local need for the funds exploded with the expansion of the Net.

As for Internet standards, criticism had already been leveled against the University of Illinois and NCSA for attempting to manage the expansion of the World Wide Web[15] and, in the context of Newt Gingrich's anti-government message, there was probably even less support for government regulation of standards.

Private industry had significantly benefited from government spending on the Internet in the period when it was not commercially viable and the government was the main market for Internet-related computer services. However, as a private market for Internet services appeared around the structure of the Internet, private industry has seen strong government involvement as a threat to corporate control of information markets. Companies that had started life as extensions of the government saw the opportunity for independence and extremely high profits as the government's role receded. The success of government intervention in nurturing new economic sectors is often rewarded by the creation of a private sector interest in blocking further government action.

Similarly, the success of the private sector helped fragment and undermine the ability of key government agencies to successfully promote the public's interest. Partly, this is due to ideological opposition from business, which politically sought to curtail the power of the public sector as the private sector expanded commercially. With Defense involvement in high technology under assault, and Republicans trying to abolish the Commerce Department where most of the NII programs have been coordinated in the Clinton administration, there has been little chance to consider the long-term potential for public servants watching their political backs.[16] Also significant was the movement of ARPA employees from public service to private companies now pushing for limiting the federal role. From Bob Metcalfe, who became rich through founding 3Com, to Vint Cerf, who has become a major spokesperson for MCI, the founders of ARPANET who initially cultivated the ethic of freely sharing information and software are now fighting for profit share and private ownership of intellectual property.

Next: The Return of Open Source Computing