Elon University

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

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.

Susy Struble – Director of IT Standardization and Government Policy for Sun Microsystems; goal is promotion of social and economic progress through interoperable IT systems. Based in San Francisco, USA.

The Transcript:

Q: Who are you with and why did they send you to IGF?

A: I’m here representing Sun Microsystems, which is a U.S. corporation-based technology vendor – we’re a big computer-systems company, we’re based in California. I am sent here to try to elevate the issue of technical standards in discussions of Internet governance. When mention technical standards I mean much beyond just the core infrastructure of the Internet. I’m talking about application-layer standards as well, which we believe are equally important to the whole notion of the network.

Q: What exactly do you mean by “layers” of the Internet?

A: First of all, I’ll start off by defining what I mean by a standard – a technical standard. By that, I’m talking about the interfaces of the hardware level as well as the software level that allow components on either side of the interface to interoperate. There’s a whole bunch of technical ways in which these interfaces can be defined. They can be – I’ll just throw some terms out to you – these are such things as application-programming interfaces, protocols, schemas, data formats, and there are encodings. All of these things – if you think about it just in our daily lives – it’s an interface by which two sides mediate and communicate to each other. There’s a whole corollary to that whole concept in the world of computing, at a hardware level and a software level.

So, when I talk about layers in the Internet, the architecture itself is built in layers. That’s probably our best kind of an analogy for the composition of how things work on the Internet. I’m not an engineer, and embarrassingly although I work for a big technology company I can’t go into much depth on this, but at the foundation layer there are physical-level things as well as standards and ways of working on top of that to provide a base-level functionality of connectivity.

The most famous parts that everyone understands about the Internet are the basic “calling” protocols like TCP/IP. Above that, as you want to add additional functionality – the analogy we use in our minds again is a layer in architecture, which in our day-to-day lives makes sense to us. You have a foundation, you build on that; you maybe build out a window here for a particular feature; you have kids, you want to build on another story and some extra bedrooms. It’s the same way with the Internet and the idea of this network that it provides. The base-level functionality is provided by TCP/IP, there are some additional things there for security and routing and packet-switching and all that kind of stuff. But as people wanted to bring to the network things that they needed to make it work for them, they added additional layers of features and functionality, so there are things around security, there are things around – well, certainly when you’re talking about applications layers there are all these things you add that enable you, as you are using one application, to, say, write your new novel and save that information and send it to someone else. They would use an application on the other end to catch that, read it and understand it and do something with it.

There is a formalized way of describing this in the world of the Internet. I think it’s seven layers that they kind of break this out as – seven functional layers that increase in complexity as you go up and in the features that they add.

Q: Which layers matter most in determining “access” and “governance”?

A: Every layer matters. The entire composite picture is what makes up “the Internet.” Truly. A technical purist might say to you, “Actually, the Internet is really only those base layers, all that other stuff is just, I don’t know what, it’s the network that uses the base layer of the Internet to communicate.”

It matters to Internet governance because this larger idea of the Internet is what we all use to communicate, and it’s a huge driver for economic growth. It’s an increasing component to the social aspects of our lives, certainly, in the developed world and increasingly in the developing world as well. Historically, Internet governance discussions have focused on control, management, who gets to say what and do what and how – around those really basic-level functionalities.

I suspect you’ve had most people coming and talking today about Internet governance and they’ve been talking about ICANN and domain-naming system and routing and how that works in regional networks, and things like that. What we’re here for and trying to include in that dialogue is, “Yes, those foundational aspects are really important, but what is equally important to users’ experiences or users’ ability to use the network are these higher-level things as well. Things like document formats. Things like any sort of data, any interface around a piece of data, around a piece of information.” Those are the things that are required when you send something through the network – the interface on either side of those needs to be “open,” so that either side can actually understand it. You can actually communicate with the person on the other end of the line.

Q: So the formatting is important because it comes back to accessibility?

A: The issues around standardization are about equitable access to information. Not only equitable access to the Internet itself, but to then be able to use the Internet in all the ways in which it is intended to be used, which is as a full communications vehicle. It’s issues of equitable access, and it’s also issues for us – on the standarization side – it’s also issues of competition innovation, which in turn leads back to improved access and more equitable access to the Internet and all the functions that it provides.

Q: How does standardization fit into the picture?

A: There’s no problem for technology vendors to go off in all sorts of different directions. Competition is good. What we’re trying to say is that competition should be happening in a very focused manner no value-added features above the those things that are required to interoperate. We don’t want competition at those interfaces that are required for interoperability – for two sides to communicate. When you compete in this area you kind of dirty it up and muddy it up. The competition becomes lopsided and one-sided.

Let me use an example. I have been hesitating to use this, because I’m going to bring up Microsoft – the gorilla in the room, always, and it’s always a bit of an uncomfortable thing to bring up, particularly since I work for Sun Microsystems. It always seems that we’re competitive. But Microsoft has such a huge, positive and defining impact on the Internet and more-so on the way that we think about computing. Take Microsoft’s Office application. That’s something that’s used over the Internet. People send each other documents, presentations, spreadsheets all the time. And people don’t think about it, because, generally, they just assume that on the other end someone’s going to be able to read that document. If you kind of break that down and parse that out a little bit, the way Microsoft stores data in that Office application is in a set of proprietary – meaning “privatized,” they own it – specifications. They’re not truly standards. They don’t permit anybody else to see this information, or to use it or to build products to it. So the only way someone can get that data is if they have a Microsoft product that adheres to that same thing.

Now that works great in a world where everybody’s using Microsoft products. It works beautifully well, as a matter of fact. But that’s not the future of computing. The future of computing, well current computing and increasingly so, is going to be very complex and very heterogeneous. There’s going to be all sorts of applications out there – all sorts of users with all sorts of different requirements. All sorts of different capacities.

You can’t have a monoculture in computing, and that’s what we fear. We’re fearful that we’re setting up a system that is skewed toward promoting a monoculture and not understanding that there needs to be heterogeneity and that’s a good thing, and that the way that you manage diversity – still enable people to talk together over the network – is to have standards.

Q: How can open standards work for everyone?

A: I would have no problem if we took all of Microsoft’s – to get the technical terms here – all the applications, programming interfaces, all their data formats or encodings, all the little interfaces they have in their systems – I’d be happy for those to be established as the open standards for the world to use. And by “open” I mean their creation and management is open to anybody to participate in, and to have a voice in changing that. You know, hopefully that rings some bells about governance right there. Also, by “open” I also mean that technical aspects of that can’t include any proprietary hooks that make it so it works better on one person’s platform than another person’s choice of a platform. We also have the issue of intellectual property here, too. By “open” I also mean that there are no restrictions based on intellectual property law to anybody using those specifications.

So if Microsoft were to take all their APIs, all this crazy stuff that makes all their applications work well with the hardware, work well with all their applications and how all these things are integrated, and they push those out into the world as truly open standards, that would be amazing. That could be such an amazing engine and driver for growth around the world. It would just be unbelievable. It would enable competition, and choice, and innovation. It means that any small, three-person company in Bangladesh or some large company in Canada could read those specifications and build their own product to it.

Back to the Office document example. There are particular requirements, say, in the local government of Bangladesh, for text-formatting, something particular for their culture that they need in an Office application; if these specifications were truly open, and anybody could write to them, two high school guys in Bangladesh could see a business opportunity and go do that. They could build that. They could even build it in an open-source community, so everybody would have an opportunity to participate. That’s sharing. That’s equitable access to information. That’s tapping into massive quantities of innovation that we have around the world that, right now, we aren’t.

I keep hearing this again and again this week: there are 5 billion people who are not connected to the Internet. At some levels for those 5 billion people this is not the most important issue. There’s a lot more that’s important. But, what it could possibly enable as an open vehicle for communication and innovation and knowledge-sharing is amazing, and when Sun – the people who sent me here to this conference – when Sun thinks about those 5 billion people, we think, “Well there would be some sales if those 5 billion come online,” but we really think, “Wow, among those 5 billion people there’s probably a significant portion who are brilliant, and who have some damned-good ideas, but they’re not online with us, we’re not hearing from them. We don’t know what they think, and they can’t participate and give those ideas back to growing the network.”

Q: Does Sun Microsystems have any plans or ideas to help developing countries gain access to the Internet?

A: In the Internet architecture there are many layers to the issue of access, starting from just the physical, network layer of that people don’t have big-bandwidth pipelines into their small village. Then there’s the capacity issue. But as to what Sun is doing, there is a lot, and what I’m here for is this open standardization aspect. We believe that’s a really important part. The open-source software movement as well – that notion. That’s a huge element of knowledge-sharing and collaboration that’s revolutionizing computing.

A huge hat’s-off to Richard Stallman and the thousands and thousands of people who have worked on that. Sun is a huge supporter of open-source software. Basically our entire software line is under open-source licenses and communities built around that, from developer tools to identity management products to all that fun stuff we do as a software company. We’ve even open-sourced and standardized a lot of things around our hardware and we opened the market for more participants to come in.

We aren’t being closed about the design rules and the processes. Fabrication is one thing – you have to have a lot of money to build one of these things – but someday that will change, and we’re trying to push that change by being more open about what we do and how we do it, why we do it. Because, as I said, there are 5 billion people out there and some think smarter than we do and we’d love to see those ideas.

We’ve long had the vision that the network itself is the computer, and computing power should be a utility – you turn on a switch and it just works, it’s just there. It should be transparent, you should never even think about it, it’s just there, wherever you need it, just in time, just at the right amount, at the right level of quality of service, at the right speed, the right bandwidth, and so on.

So there’s a lot we’re doing with hardware and software to try to enable that as a vision. Developing computing as a utility brings a lot to the development agenda, building the pool of access to the network.

Q: How do we help everyone in the world get access? 

A: We think of getting information in a PC computer now, but when these people get a computer they’re going to get it in a cell phone, they’re going to get it in some device, they’re going to get it in a kiosk, perhaps. For many of these areas it may just be one kiosk in the center of town or in the town hall where people can come and access it.

We don’t want to be so tethered to the idea that it’s this one big, klunky thing and everybody’s got to have one and own it just like in the US and doesn’t share it. There’s a lot more sharing capacity that we should enable here.

How is that going to happen? This may sound like it’s a cop-out, but it’s just general demand. There are some ways in which the market is good and the market is delivering. Things just keep getting smaller, and smaller, and smaller, with more portability with longer battery life – which is important, too – less and less power usage.

Diversification of all of these computing devices is a good thing. That lends flexibility to situations where everybody having a big, klunky laptop that takes up a lot of power that’s very expensive is just not a possibility. That’s just one issue that will improve access, and I’m not addressing the issue of bandwidth. I just don’t know enough about that, to be honest. But again the innovation – breaking devices down to be smaller, and more diverse types, meeting more user requirements and so on; still, these things don’t work if they aren’t based on standards – they are the core thing to enable people to work together in a network.

As for capacity-building, it’s another issue like access, with many layers to it. I’m uncomfortable speaking about it – I’m from California, USA, what do I know about capacity-building in developing countries? Someone from developing country who’s involved in this can speak to it much better than I can. It’s obviously tied to education; it’s obviously tied to cultural needs, environmental needs, too.

From my limited experience spending months in Egypt, the people there did not need a big, massive computer with all this computing power. Capacity is going to come from vendors starting to supply exactly what users need and they need to realize there’s a wide range of diversity in what users need. Citizens don’t necessarily need to know how to install an operating system, and learn how to use 50 different types of applications.

Capacity, at the application level, comes from asking, what do they need to know? There’s probably going to be a whole range of things. That will all get figured out the more access people have to this in the first place, so they can start formulating what it is that they need and, in their culture, what would be helpful to them in their daily lives. For me, living in the tech world, Silicon Valley, California, I need my BlackBerry, my ability to get e-mail everywhere I am and I need to be paged at any time and I need my videos, I need to be able to digitally record off the device. Not everybody needs that; needs are going to determine what capacities are to be met.

Q: Which stakeholders should take the lead in decision-making for Internet governance?

A: My vision would be that this is driven by the users. This is power to the people, by the people. People should be determining what governance means, what type of governance they need, what needs to be governed, what needs to be let alone.

I heard a lot of talk this week – a very irritating point for me – that “the market will figure this out,” the market, market, market. I’m all for market forces, and I do believe that they often do resolve to the best solution, but there’s no such thing as a free market. Markets are always regulated, and I think there’s a role for governments in that – of course, that’s what they do, they help to regulate markets – but I think they need to be absolutely tuned to what users need when they’re making those decisions, when to step in and what to do. That is something that has been lost in a lot of discussions of Internet governance.

It’s always difficult when you have a large, dispersed crowd that needs to come together and make something happen. It’s a lot easier when you have two people in the room; then bargaining power is quick to bring it together and make it happen. So it’s been a hard thing for users to voice what it is that they need and to communicate that to governments and technology companies…As we have a population that’s more conversant in technologies, what they want, what they’re looking for, we are seeing more governments being responsive to that.

A great example of that is in intellectual-property law, not to get too far into that lovely and arcane subject, but there was a time when the limitations and exceptions around copyright and patents were pretty stringent, and in the world of technology there were a lot of battles about this and those initial battles were done by just a few people rooting for the consumer – for the people – in this. That has really changed as people are using technology more and more in their daily lives they are really starting to say, “Hey, wait, I don’t think that’s really fair. When I buy that song off of iTunes, I play it on my iPod, I bought that. But I can’t play it on my other MP3 player? Wait, wait, wait. That doesn’t make sense.” They’re starting to get engaged in these things; they’re starting to understand. That’s something that’s improving.

I’m not giving you a good vision, I guess, for how the three (government, industry, civil society) should work together, but I absolutely think it needs to be driven by the users. That’s what this is all about.

Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the Internet?

A: My greatest hope for the Internet is that we stop talking about it and that it becomes just such a ubiquitous and seamless thing that is just there and it works equally well for everybody that we don’t think about it – that it’s just an enabler, which is what it is and what it was always meant to be. That we don’t have these big UN-sponsored conferences built around deciding how we should govern the Internet and how these different actors should play in it. It just is. We turn it on and it’s there. People don’t think about it. They just go about their daily lives.

Q: What is your greatest fear for the future of the Internet?

A: That the Internet becomes just like any other privatized communications mechanism that we have out there. That it doesn’t become just this basic utility for us, like the free natural resources we have and we hope to continue to have like clean air, clean water. Electricity – I hope it becomes that. I’m scared that it won’t. I’m scared that due to forces of confusion that competitive business forces might fragment it, break it up into one more thing in our world that a lot of the “haves” can afford and the “have-nots” can’t.

Q: Describe the future impact of the Internet in one word.

A: Can I use two? Diffuse and ubiquitous.

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.