NSTMF
Communications

How the ‘Internet Evangelist’ Spreads the Word

As Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist,” Vint Cerf advocates for policies to make the Internet more accessible and affordable.

Note: At the time of publication, Dr. Cerf was appearing at An Evening With (AEW) event at Georgetown University, hosted by the NSTMF. Click here to follow the NSTMF and receive further updates of additional AEW events.

As one of the fathers of the Internet, Vint Cerf’s work is never done.

The Internet of today is much more complex and integrated in our everyday lives than the initial network he paved the way for in creating the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and the Internet Protocol (IP) with Robert Kahn in the 1970s. Looking back, Cerf says there are certainly things he would have done differently.

“If I had the ability to convince colleagues that the Internet would grow to the size it is today, I probably would have tried to introduce a much larger address space” than the current 32 bit space of IPv4, Cerf says. With the growth of the Internet over the years, some have predicted that the available 4.3 billion addresses will run out, prompting the creation of the 128-bit Internet Protocol Version 6, or IPv6.

Cerf added that he would also have liked to introduce public key cryptography, which enables authentication and encryption, sooner, but the technology was not available in the time period of the Internet’s earliest development.

And aside from the more practical changes Cerf says he would have tweaked looking back, there are also larger problems that were not anticipated some four decades ago. One such problem is what Cerf calls the “digital Dark Age.” In the same way that floppy disks are outdated and non-compatible now, Cerf fears the same may happen for today’s webpages and digital stockpiles.

“I am concerned that we do not have well-established plans for the preservation of digital information in useful forms,” Cerf says. “Will our billions of digital photographs still be accessible and renderable 100 years from now? What about all our email, documents, spreadsheets, tweets, blogs, web pages? There are technical, legal, and business model challenges associated with preserving digital information in useful form for hundreds of years.”

With the rise of smartphones and the World Wide Web, there has also been a growth in the sharing of information, which has its ups and downs, Cerf says.

“The best outcomes have come from information and software sharing through the open source movement and the open Internet,” Cerf says. “The World Wide Web has been a source of great innovation and useful content. … At the same time, the same [users] have also produced a significant amount of disinformation, misinformation, and disruptive content, including malware and denial of service attacks.”

And while the potential for security threats will only continue to grow with an increasing number of smart devices, security must be balanced with access.

Throughout the years, Cerf has spoken out about “network neutrality” (or net neutrality), the idea that Internet service providers and those regulating the Internet should not discriminate when it comes to providing access to content.

As Google’s “Chief Internet Evangelist,” Cerf says part of his job is to advocate “that encourage the further spread of access [to] the Internet at affordable rates and sustainable operation.”

“When asked, I explain I am ‘geek orthodox,’” he says.

And as early as 2005, Cerf was advocating for a free and open Internet. In a written testimony to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, Cerf said the “remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design.”

“The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services,” Cerf wrote. “The Internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control. By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the Internet has created a platform for innovation.”

“Enshrining a rule that broadly permits network operators to discriminate in favor of certain kinds of services and to potentially interfere with others would place broadband operators in control of online activity,” Cerf continued. “Allowing broadband providers to segment their IP offerings and reserve huge amounts of bandwidth for their own services will not give consumers the broadband Internet our country and economy need. Many people will have little or no choice among broadband operators for the foreseeable future, implying that such operators will have the power to exercise a great deal of control over any applications placed on the network.”

Now more than a decade later, the same ideological struggle continues. Ajit Pai, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has already taken a stance against the net neutrality rules the agency passed about two years ago, recently calling them a “mistake.”

“Net neutrality is coming to a head again now because [Pai] doesn’t like the current way in which net neutrality is implemented,” Cerf says. “I can’t speak for him, but my impression is that while he doesn’t object to some of the basic ideas behind net neutrality … I think he would prefer to see some different way of expressing that and providing a legal basis. The obvious one would be to have Congress pass a new Telecommunications Act, which authorizes the FCC under a new title … to enforce net neutrality rules. It remains to be seen whether Congress is willing to open up the Telecommunications Act and revise it to achieve that particular objective.”