Benjamin Franklin famously quipped about the only two certainties in life: death and taxes. Tax policy, a reflection of social values and priorities, is inherently contentious in a state as large and diverse as California, much less the United States overall. Although most taxpayers agree on the necessity of collective contributions to services like schools, roads, and emergency response, other areas of public investment are more disputed: prisons, military spending, or access to health care.
Setting aside these debates, if you’ve used the Internet today, whether for shopping, social networking, or research, take a moment to appreciate that public investment—our tax dollars—made these activities possible.
The fabric of the Internet is woven with public-private partnerships. From its origin in the early 1960s, pioneers in network infrastructure and early demonstrations of the concept (ARPANET) were funded by the U.S. Defense Department. The first host-to-host message was sent from UCLA (a public university) to the Stanford Research Institute (an independent nonprofit) in 1969, and the first international packet switching networks were linked in 1978 by a consortium of public-private partners (the British Post Office, Western Union, and California-based Tymnet).
Use of the Internet for commercial applications was hotly debated but ultimately inevitable, and the first Internet service provider companies were formed in the late 1980s. Through funding from the National Science Foundation, management of the Internet architecture was transitioned from ARPANET to NSFnet in the 1980s, developed by university and government users for a decade, then transferred to private entities in the mid-to-late 1990s.
Like other technology developments in telecommunications (telephone and telegraph), broadcasting systems (radio and television), or civil infrastructure (highways and dams), these electronic communication networks require investment on a scale only possible with government investment. Once established, these infrastructures provide the basis for innovation, discovery and economic growth. Federal agencies like the NSF and National Institutes of Health continue to fuel research in data-intensive science—genomics, astronomy, particle physics—all of which are pushing the boundaries of high bandwidth connectivity.
Building on these investments, the high-tech sector drives gains in productivity and employment well beyond Silicon Valley, Redmond, Wash. and other tech hubs. A 2012 research report indicates that in fields devoted to science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), employment has grown more than 16% since 2002, wages in these jobs are higher relative to other occupations, and innovation in these fields has a strong multiplier effect to other industries and distributed geographic areas.
In addition to scientific applications, video entertainment — movies, games, “House of Cards” — requires ever-faster download speeds to satisfy the vast demand for real-time streaming. Projects like Google Fiber and US Ignite are working with local and state governments to improve cyberinfrastructure and create new applications for public benefit. The European Union is employing this model and will invest hundreds of millions of Euros in its Future Internet Public Private Partnership, part of its Digital Agenda for Europe under Horizon 2020.
Other multi-national, public-private investments in information technology are underway in Eastern Africa, as well as within individual countries like Estonia and Malaysia. In remarks from the White House in 2009, President Obama made cooperation with private companies a key priority in plans to improve digital infrastructure in the United States, and the NSF-funded Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) is creating opportunities for researchers and industry to work together to create new technologies and applications to stimulate economic growth.
Advances in the tech sector are celebrated daily in Wired, Fast Company, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. But contributions made by the public side of public-private partnerships often remain unsung.
So, as reluctant as you might be to send a check to the IRS today (or, wait, did you file electronically?), take a moment to appreciate what our collective investment makes possible for social and economic benefit beyond what any individual or company can create on its own. The citizen scientist and respected statesman Ben Franklin would approve.