Vint Cerf — who recently visited New Zealand to take part in the IPv6 Hui — probably needs no real introduction, having been a codesigner of the basic architecture of the internet and of the TCP/IP protocol that makes the internet possible. He is even known as a "father of the internet". Cerf was at an IEEE event in Silicon Valley recently to celebrate the 40th anniversary of DARPAnet, a forerunner to the internet, and the 125th anniversary of IEEE itself. InfoWorld editor at large Paul Krill spoke with Cerf about a variety of internet topics, including government legislation that could give the president greater authority over the internet. Cerf also discussed his career with the internet.
InfoWorld: When you participated in development of internet technologies, did you think the internet would ever materialise into what it has become today?
Cerf: The honest short answer, of course, is no, but the honest longer answer is we did know – Bob Metcalfe and I, anyway – knew in 1973 that we had an incredibly powerful technology here. We already had a lot of experience with Doug Engelbart's work at SRI and a lot of other things that we don't have time to go into, so we both knew that whatever was going to happen, we had very powerful stuff. Then the question was would it be something that could be rolled out to the rest of the world? We didn't know for sure but when we worked on it, we decided not to patent, not to copyright, not to control, but to share everything we knew about the internet design to the general public all around the world. What's amazing is that it was a [US] Defence Department project and we were in the middle of the Cold War. In spite of all that, we made all of this completely available to everybody and the only reason it was possible is nobody paid any attention to us.
InfoWorld: Legislation has been proposed that would give the government power to take control over private networks on the internet in the event of an emergency. Do you think the government has too much control over the internet? [Editor's note: The bill in question recently has been revised, appearing to tone down language pertinent to presidential powers.]
Cerf: This is the Snowe-Rockefeller [legislation]. It was one of the proposed legislative steps. You understand the motivation behind it. It's people concerned about the dependency we have on the net and the potential for that dependency to be very brittle. But the idea that the president would turn off pieces of the internet is not sensible. On the other hand, focusing attention on the need to make the network more robust, more reliable, more resistant to various forms of either attack or infection is a really good thing to be attentive to. So to the degree that legislation draws attention to the things that we should be doing to protect this resource, it is a good thing. I don't think the president should try to turn off the internet, and I don't think that he has any interest in trying to do that.
InfoWorld: What do you think of the commercialisation of the internet?
Cerf: Actually, I take some credit for having initiated steps that led directly to commercialisation. In 1988, no commercial traffic was permitted on the internet backbone at all, period. "Sorry, it's for research and military only or academia," and I said, "Hey, the rest of the world and especially the rest of the American public was not going to get access to this network unless there was an economic engine to support it, so could you allow me to put MCI mail onto the internet backbone as a test of commercial and noncommercial use?" And they said yes, and after that the internet took off. In 1988 [it] started doubling in size; in 1989 the first three commercial networks were in operation. So frankly I think it has helped it because it wouldn't have expanded and spread without that engine.
InfoWorld: The internet has helped e-commerce, which didn't exist before, but it has hurt some industries such as publishing. Did you anticipate any of the impacts that it has had on different markets?
Cerf: Yes, to some extent and the reason you can anticipate that is the economics of digital technology. It always comes down to cheaper and cheaper and faster and bigger, so the industries that depended on physical material instead of digital distribution and copying are harmed in some sense or forced to rethink their business models because the economics of digital technology are so much dramatically different and generally cheaper than the physical technology. So paper, printing, shipping, delivering, management and recovery and everything else are much more expensive than digital distribution.
InfoWorld: More people apparently are accessing the internet on devices than on PCs. What do you think is the next step?
Cerf: The internet of things is on its way. The clear evidence of that, of course, is mobile to begin with, appliances that are now internet-enabled, picture frames, refrigerators and things like that, office appliances, appliances at home. The smart grid is going to accelerate that process because more and more appliances will be part of the smart grid and its ensemble. They will be reporting their use. They will be accepting control saying, "Hey, don't run the air conditioner for the next 15 minutes, I'm in the middle of a peak load." We'll see many, many more devices on the net than there are people [and] more sensor networks on the system, as well.
InfoWorld: What are you doing at Google?
Cerf: I am vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google. I didn't ask for the title. When they said what title do you want, I said, "How about archduke" and they said it didn't quite fit in their nomenclature, but how about being chief internet evangelist considering what you've been doing for the past 35 years, which is trying to get more internet built.
InfoWorld: What do you think of Google's role as far as where the internet is headed?
Cerf: Google has contributed a great deal to people finding information on the World Wide Web. This avalanche of stuff has fallen into the net since Tim Berners-Lee's invention was available to the public around 1994. Google's existence is partly due to that because if there wasn't so much material you wouldn't need to go indexing it, and we've been very fortunate to find the business model that supports all of the products and services that we offer.