Elon University

An interview transcript from the first Internet Governance Forum, Athens, Greece Oct/Nov 2006: Vint Cerf

IGF 2006 LogoThis is a transcript from a series of video interviews designed to assess major issues tied to the diffusion of the internet. It is the record of one of many interviews conducted in 2006 with international internet stakeholders from 18 different nations at the world’s first Internet Governance Forum in Athens, Greece. The Athens IGF was the first of five annual global events administrated by the UN to focus on discussion of the overarching issues tied to the future of information and communications technologies. More than 1,200 participants shared information, experiences and best practices.

Cerf Headshot 2006Vinton Cerf – Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google; chairman of the board for ICANN; and co-designer of the internet’s enabling TCP/IP protocols and the basic architecture of the internet; founding president of the Internet Society. While he travels the world regularly in support of internet projects, his home base is in Herndon, Virginia, USA.

The Transcript:

Q: What was your original hope for the internet at its inception, and what do you predict/hope the future of the internet will be?

A: Those are not simple, short questions to answer. They’re short questions; they aren’t so simple to answer briefly.

The original work was technological in nature. The question was, could we actually figure out a way to connect different kinds of packet-switched nets using radio and satellite and wire-line telephone circuits to actually build a multi-network system in which every computer, regardless of which network it was on, could communicate with every other one. The applications were unspecified. The only point of the net was to carry data back and forth in these little packets. That succeeded wildly well, and I’m very happy with that result.

It was also done on behalf of the American Defense Department, in aid of using computers for command and control. That, also, was very successfully demonstrated in some of the action taking place. For example, in the Gulf War the American military made use of internet technology to do what it needed to do. So, from the purely engineering point of view, I was happy to see that the thing that we said we would build actually did what we said it would do. Any engineer would like that to happen.

Today’s internet is vastly bigger in scope and in application than anything I anticipated when we were doing the work 30 years ago. It’s – as you know – heavily in use by the general public, it’s being used in business and education – there’s a long list.

What’s important about it is now it’s reached the point where it’s having serious economic and social impact. The presence of this meeting, this Internet Governance Forum, is evidence of that. That’s both satisfying and scary at the same time, because if we get it wrong, if we don’t set good frameworks for its further evolution, it may go off in a direction that is less beneficial to all of us than we would like.

As for the future, it’s already showing itself. Wireless access to the internet with mobiles and WiFi and WiMax is transforming the way in which we use it and opportunities we have for building applications. In the longer term, I hope we see more and more broadband access to the net, so people can use applications that today are hard to do.

For example, if you have a server at home, and you don’t have very much bandwidth going outbound – even if you have a lot coming in – you can’t really serve anybody, or you can’t have video conferencing very effectively. It’s ironic when you’re sitting on an asymmetric high-speed connection. You could receive high-quality video but you can’t send it because you don’t have enough data rate. We will get to the point where symmetry is not only desired, but – I hope – supplied.

More critically, we’re trying to make the network much more accommodating for international use – that is to say for multiple languages. The web itself and e-mail packages are now capable of supporting Unicode to allow virtually any language to be supported, but the domain-name system needs to be adapted to support that as well. So we’re deep in the midst of that now.

In the longer term, one of my pet projects at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory is to design and deploy an interplanetary extension of the internet. Some people look at this and say – you know – Is this a science-fiction story? The answer is “No,” we have to support space exploration, because that’s the only way we’ll learn about our solar system and we came from. In order to do that work – to put all those robotic devices out there, and eventually people – we need communications capability that’s richer than what we have now. Today we have point-to-point radio links. What we want is a full network capability the same way we have it on the internet today here for us, really. So we’re poised now, in that project, to have a two-planet internet in operation between Earth and Mars to support more landers on the surface of Mars sometime during 2010 to 2020. So, as this century begins to unfold, we’ll see an interplanetary backbone beginning to form. Of course, to me that’s very exciting.

Q: What kind of impact will this have on society?

A: I think several things are already very apparent. We’re seeing a transformation of the entertainment and information industry from a mass medium with a small number of suppliers going out (with their content) to a large number of consumers, to all of us being participants in the production and sharing of information. So blogging, YouTube, people uploading videos, of course pervasive e-mail, and people putting up their own web pages are all evidence of communities forming in virtual cyberspace to have conversations that they never could have before.

The other thing that’s interesting about internet is that it is not a one-way medium. In fact, it’s a group-interaction medium, so it’s not even just simply two-way. We’ve never had a flexible medium quite like that before, and this group phenomenon, where you can talk to people you don’t know yet but you know they’re interested in common things because you discovered them on the same website, that’s a phenomenon that we’ve never really quite had before. It is dramatically different and new, and it implies a sharing of information that we couldn’t do so easily before.

It’s this phenomenon of information-sharing which I’m very excited about. Some people say information is power. I say information-sharing is power.

This video transcript is offered for use under a Creative Commons Noncommercial License allowing no derivative works. Executive producers, Erin Barnett and Janna Quitney Anderson; chief engineer, Bryan Baker; videographers, Barnett and Baker; editor, Barnett.