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The Mother of Gore's Invention
by Declan McCullagh

3:00 a.m. Oct. 17, 2000 PDT
   

WASHINGTON -- If it's true that Al Gore created the Internet, then I created the "Al Gore created the Internet" story.

I was the first reporter to question the vice president's improvident boast, way back when he made it in early 1999.


    
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Since then, the story's become far more than just a staple of late-night Letterman jokes: It's now as much a part of the American political firmament as the incident involving that other vice president, a schoolchild, and a very unfortunate spelling of potato.

Poor Al. For a presidential wannabe who prides himself on a sober command of the brow-furrowing nuances of technology policy, being the butt of all these jokes has proven something of a setback.

I mean, who can hear the veep talk up the future of the Internet nowadays without feeling an urge to stifle some disrespectful giggles? It would be like listening to Dan Quayle doing a please-take-me-seriously stump speech at an Idaho potato farm.

Case in point: Mars Inc. lampoons the vice president in a hilarious new commercial for Snickers. In it, a cartoon Al brags that he, variously, invented the Internet, trousers, and when he wasn't busy elsewhere, "lots of other stuff too."

When you're getting mocked by a candy company, you know your statesmanship rating has plummeted to a terrifying new low. No wonder one recent poll shows Gore to be solidly ahead of his Republican rival in only 11 states. It's simple: He's got no respect.

Which brings us to an important question: Are the countless jibes at Al's expense truly justified? Did he really play a key part in the development of the Net?

The short answer is that while even his supporters admit the vice president has an unfortunate tendency to exaggerate, the truth is that Gore never did claim to have "invented" the Internet.

During a March 1999 CNN interview, while trying to differentiate himself from rival Bill Bradley, Gore boasted: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet."

That statement was enough to convince me, with the encouragement of my then-editor James Glave, to write a brief article that questioned the vice president's claim. Republicans on Capitol Hill noticed the Wired News writeup and started faxing around tongue-in-cheek press releases -- inveterate neatnik Trent Lott claimed to have invented the paper clip -- and other journalists picked up the story too.

My article never used the word "invented," but it didn't take long for Gore's claim to morph into something he never intended.

The terrible irony in this exchange is that while Gore certainly didn't create the Internet, he was one of the first politicians to realize that those bearded, bespectacled researchers were busy crafting something that could, just maybe, become pretty important.

In January 1994, Gore gave a landmark speech at UCLA about the "information superhighway."

Many portions -- discussions of universal service, wiring classrooms to the Net, and antitrust actions -- are surprisingly relevant even today. (That's an impressive enough feat that we might even forgive Gore his tortured metaphors such as "road kill on the information superhighway" and "parked at the curb" on the information superhighway.)

Gore's speech reverberated around Democratic political circles in Washington. Other Clinton administration officials began citing it in their own remarks, and the combined effort helped to grab the media's attention.

Their timing was impeccable: In July 1993, according to Network Wizards' survey, there were 1.8 million computers connected to the Internet. By July 1994, the figure had nearly doubled to 3.2 million, a trend that continued through January 2000, when about 72 million computers had permanent network addresses.

Small wonder, then, that as the election nears, Gore's defenders have been rallying to defend him. In a recent op-ed piece in the San Jose Mercury News, John Doerr and Bill Joy claim "nobody in Washington understands" the new economy as well as Gore does.

Net-pioneers Robert Kahn and Vint Cerf, a Democratic party donor, have written an essay saying "no other elected official, to our knowledge, has made a greater contribution over a longer period of time" than the veep.

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