Did Margaret Thatcher have a hand in "creating the Internet"? Well, not directly. But she certainly played an important role.
Al Gore, of course, has been widely mocked for claiming to have "invented the Internet." Although he never claimed to have created the technology itself, he did sponsor two key pieces of legislation that led directly to the birth of the commercial Internet.
Now Steve Cassidy, a writer for UK’s PC Pro, argues that "Thatcher's telecommunication door opening exercise led to a tiny flowering, in retrospect, of pre-internet online services."
Cassidy vividly recalls how moribund the UK phone system was before privatization. "If you were lucky, your phone had buttons instead of a dial, and went brrp-brrp instead of clanga-langa-langa. That was about all the choice you had, and phones lived in the hallway, because when the telephone engineer turned up he didn't want the hassle of trying to hide the wire against the skirting board."
In 1984, Thatcher privatized the national phone service and deregulated the British telecom industry.
By 1992, the data circuits and telephone lines themselves were open to commercial users. But direct access to the Internet was available only to academics and large corporations — at a cost of thousands of pounds a month. US and UK users could sign up for Compuserve and America Online, which offered access to their private networks and services, but not open access to the full Internet.
Then, on June 1, 1992, Cliff Stanford started Demon Systems Ltd. For ten pounds a month, the company offered full TCP/IP access to the Internet on a static IP address. Although Demon offered the services similar to Compuserve and AOL, Cassidy claims Demon was the first to let users "receive SMTP mail and other IP traffic direct to their computers independently of Demon."
That, of course, would have been impossible if Thatcher hadn't taken her initial steps to deregulate the British telecom industry a decade before.
A few years later, Thatcher was interviewed on CNN about the Internet. On the clip, a pedantic Bernard Shaw asks her: "Are we making technology a god at the expense of the human spirit, at the expense of religion, ethics, culture, the glue?"
"The advances of this last half of the century have…brought remarkable benefits," the Iron Lady replied. "I often say to young people, look, science is neutral. The wonderful new service, the wonderful new technology scientists give us so often can be good or evil. It's up to the human being which they're used for.
"For example, the new Internet. You can get the most wonderful messages, the most marvelous music, the most marvelous art across the Internet."
Thatcher then argued that we needed to censor the Internet. ""You can also get pornography and sadism. And we have to stop that." Washington Post blogger Max Fisher explains: “That doesn’t sound so pro-Web today, but this position was not so unusual back then”
Today, Thatcher's deregulatory zeal looks both formative and prescient. Opening the UK phone lines to all comers led directly to the information free-for-all we all enjoy today.
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