Elon University

Special Session: Internet Visionary Vint Cerf Shares His Foresight

An interview about the future of the Internet hosted by Lee Rainie, Pew Internet

Brief description: Pew Internet & American Life Project Director Lee Rainie interviews Vint Cerf, Internet Protocol co-innovator and Google vice president.

Details of the session

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf wants you to know that he didn’t choose his job title.

In an interview with Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet & American Life Project, Cerf talked about his visit with Google leaders at the time of his hiring. “I would have chosen archduke,” he joked. And it is true that people all over the world do treat him like royalty. As one of the world’s most important innovators and a highly accessible public personality who spends most of his time campaigning for global good, Cerf travels constantly – often as a diplomat for the digital ages – and he is constantly exchanging high-level information with great thinkers.

When Rainie asked him to share “encounters with things you never expected on the Internet,” Cerf replied, “Every time a Web page comes back with all of its pieces I am amazed – if you know all of the things that have to happen, it’s amazing, how the hell could all of that stuff work all the time? …Technology is what you didn’t grow up with – it is technology if it is new to you. I am amazed that this stuff works. I am also relieved that people have been able to make a business out of it, make it self-sustaining.”

He shared some other things he never expected: In 1988, when the Internet was still mostly an academic and government project, he remembers being astonished that MCI mail, a commercial service, moved onto a public infrastructure – everyone could suddenly communicate with each other. He said he regrets the fact that public key cryptography was not quite ready for prime time when the Internet’s original architects were getting it off the ground – “they had concepts but no working algorithms” he said, shaking his head about the loss of that element for authentication. He also discussed the decision by the Internet’s original architects to implement 32 bits of address space in 1977 instead of 128 bits. He said they figured, well, “this is just an experiment” no need to push for more. “The problem is that we didn’t ever end the experiment, and it’s 2010.”

That experiment has launched Cerf into a career that gives him unparalleled insight into the future of the Internet.

Cybersecurity issues and the threat of terror, crime and denial of service seem to be making more headlines all the time. Online civil liberties expert Larry Lessig noted in a recent speech that the US government has a plan ready to exert government controls and new rules if a major cyberthreat is identified – some people refer to this as an I-9-11 event or an “Internet 9/11.”

“Part of the problem is the responsibility for the Internet is very diffuse,” Cerf said. The Web is a marvelous distributed system, he noted and everyone is responsible for a tiny piece of the Web, but “this doesn’t mean, however, that there should be no concerted thinking.” He proposed creating a mechanism that would allow companies that would otherwise be competitors to come together and build defenses against Internet threats like botnets.

Cerf also briefly touched on Google’s switch to .hk for its China service after conflicts and controversy with the restrictive government there. “I thought that was rather an adroit option,” he said. “That doesn’t solve the problem that there are people in the world who aren’t getting the kind of access to information that we’d like.”

“The only way to defend citizens is to enter into more intergovernmental agreements,” Cerf said. “It’s the beginnings of an attempt to formulate a policy that allows a government to protect its society. We’re not going to agree on all the particulars, but there must be a few things we might be able to start with.”

He noted that because the Internet is global, some agreements on governance should be developed. “We aren’t necessarily going to agree on every particular, but let’s sit down and see if there’s something we can all agree on,” he said. Cerf feels strongly that child pornography should be one material eradicated from the Internet and he noted that more than 90 countries don’t have laws against it.

Google is a Web advertising giant, so Cerf can speak extensively about the viability of this business model for the news media. With blogs, television and the Internet competing, print journalism, especially newspapers are suffering economically. Most have moved to a model that provides content online for free, funded by banner ads, but it has not been nearly as profitable as Google’s search engine model.

Cerf said he does not have all the answers but he thinks that even online ads on newspaper websites are not as targeted or as comprehensive as they should be.

“I think that if the news industry is going to survive in an online mode, it has to have some kind of service other than reporting,” he said. He suggested that readers should be prompted to take some sort of immediate action, an engaged form of reporting.

He said he has seen a willingness to pay for high-quality reporting but that there is currently a downward spiral; news organizations downsize their staffs as they lose money, and the quality of reporting suffers, causing them to lose even more money.

“I don’t know what the right answers are, but I know that to get to them, we will need to try some experiments,” Cerf said. “It remains to be seen how this will all come out.”

– By Rachel Cieri and Janna Anderson, Imagining the Internet

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