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Interview with Vint Cerf, by Sean Daly
Monday, March 03 2008 @ 02:36 PM EST

Groklaw's Sean Daly had an opportunity to meet Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, at OpenForum Europe last week. Mr. Cerf, known as the Father of the Internet because of being the co-designer with Robert Kahn of TCP/IP protocols and the basic architecture of the Internet, was gracious enough to answer some email questions Sean propounded regarding the future of the Internet, standards in general, and OOXML in particular. Like many others this week, Cerf has been giving the standards process considerable thought, and he concludes in connection with OOXML that "Internet users deserve better handling of global Internet standards."

***************************************

Interview with Vint Cerf
~ by Sean Daly

Q: You 've been called the "father of the Internet"... how is your 'baby' doing? What are the trends that interest and concern you most?

Cerf: I'm just one of the fathers of the Internet! The net serves over 1.3 billion users today, so I am pretty happy about that. On the other hand we have about 5.2 billion more users still to put online, and that's a challenge. Increasingly, many users will have their first access to the Internet by way of their data-enabled mobiles - so it is a challenge to fashion interfaces to current services that work well in the mobile context. We still do not have as much broadband service as I would like to see, so this is another area of interest, if not concern.

There continues to be a good deal of political sensitivity to the Internet and the interactions it facilitates. Some countries understandably worry about abusive content and predatory behavior (fraud, por nography) and seek to combat it. On the other hand, there are also attempts to foreclose open debate and criticism of a political nature, and this worries me. Some of the mechanisms necessary to the operation of the Internet should not be politicized. The operation of ICANN (the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers) is one example. The Internet is global but cultures and social customs vary from one jurisdiction to another, so the Internet and its operators are finding it necessary to adapt to these variations.

I am very excited about the maturing effort to incorporate internationalized domain names (IDNs) into the Domain Name System. These domain names are made up of strings of characters rendered in scripts other than the traditional Latin script that has been in used for domain names in the past. I am equally excited that the Internet community, especially the operators and software providers, are responding to the important need for IPv6 introduction into Internet operation. We need the additional address space to keep expanding the Internet to serve the world's needs.

Q: Your title at Google is Chief Internet Evangelist, so what is on the current to-do list?

Cerf: Find ways to increase the implementation of Internet access through fixed, mobile, and satellite communication channels.

Continue pressing to get IDNs and IPv6 into operation.

Focus on security and defense against abusive behaviors.

Find more ways to protect user privacy and to defend against viruses, worms and denial of service attacks.

Encourage experimentation with many new applications, collaborative tools and services, continuing indexing of the World Wide Web and retrospective indexing of printed material or other content not yet in digital form.

Q: What were your general impressions of the OpenForum Europe meeting? What did you take away from it?

Cerf:I thought this was a very timely and well-attended event. I resonated strongly with its declaration of principles and appreciated the spotlight it placed on the purpose of standards in the Internet arena and the processes by which they are developed. I came away persuaded that the current consideration of the OO XML proposal deserved some very serious thought. The specification is enormous (6000 pages) and as far as I am aware, there are not two or more independent implementations. It does not strike me as a very reasonable candidate for the Fast Track process that ought to be reserved for standards proposals that have multiple, independent, interoperable implementations and stability. I have trouble reconciling "stable" with 2000 pages of revision proposals that are being considered this week, again on a Fast Track basis. Internet users deserve better handling of global Internet standards.

Q: Concerning standards, do you feel that there is sufficient transparency in the ISO process? Is the secret closed-door policy for OOXML the exception, or the rule?

Cerf: Terms like "secret" and "closed door" are somewhat "loaded" but I think any important standards process should be as transparent as possible. The recent study on open standards underwritten by the European Commission produced 10 important properties of open standards that I found very thoughtful. I'm still skeptical of the adoption of standards subject to intellectual property constraints and prefer standards that have no barriers to implementation, so that's an area in which I am not completely aligned with the Commission study.

Q: Years ago, the open Internet seemed threatened by walled gardens: Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL of course, and Microsoft Network in its early versions. Today, some worry that Microsoft in particular is pushing certain technologies, like Sharepoint, to try to create a kind of Internet monopoly. Do you share that worry, that the Internet will break apart into proprietary walled gardens?

Cerf: We saw that walled gardens are NOT what users want. They want freedom to interact with everyone in convenient and standards-compliant ways. I do not think we will see walled gardens of the previous kind, but I do worry when global standards are adopted that are likely to be implementable by only one vendor. When global standards processes are overly influenced by proprietary interests, they cease to facilitate interoperability and competitive implementation. I do worry when standards are adopted that have potential encumbrances or that erode the openness that has been a hallmark of the Internet since its origins.

Q: Another issue today is proprietary and patent-encumbered formats. YouTube is a prime example -- there is no support for unencumbered video formats like Ogg Theora. Why is it so hard for people to understand the value of openness?

Cerf: My guess is that some of this arises from concerns for proprietary re-purposing of content without permission. I think a refinement might be to allow uploading in different formats, at the preference of the content supplier. There is still the problem that a supplier of content may not actually have the rights to supply it.

Q: You've mentioned that video is the future and that the Internet is more than the World Wide Web. Today, we have ISPs and experts claiming that video is what makes net neutrality no longer an option, because it will greatly increase usage and put a strain on the Internet. You cited P2P protocols as a positive innovation, yet the old guard did and does all it can to destroy P2P, when it would seem that it would help so much with the problem they posit as solvable only by throttling the Internet and charging extra for file sharing. That seems counterintuitive. In the UK, new legislation will pretty much require ISPs to read every packet to make sure no copyright infringement is happening. To a simple soul, it seems the "experts" and "powers that be" and certainly Hollywood content owners have absolutely no idea how the Internet works or why it does. Perhaps they are stubbornly clueless, or old-fashioned, or afraid of change, but doesn't the possibility exist that they could needlessly hinder or even destroy the Internet before they finally comprehend that what they are doing is damaging them also?

Cerf: Yes, that possibility exists and the apparent requirement to do deep packet inspection will only increase the desire by Internet users to encrypt everything they send for privacy reasons. The behavior of old- form video providers, focusing on streaming, is narrow-minded at best. The future of video is file down and uploading at speeds faster than you can watch (or sometimes, slower than you would want to watch). In their zeal to deal with copyright infringement, intellectual property interests could well destroy the openness that has made the Internet engine run so well.

Q: Some are concerned that Google keeps activity logs on hand for many months and could mine personal data. Is it really necessary for Google to hold on to such data at all? Are these fears justified?

Cerf: We have announced that we will anonymize the information after 18 months. The basic purpose for keeping the logs is not to track personal activity but to lump together related information transactions so we can refine and improve our ability to respond to searches in more relevant ways and also to improve our ability to serve up relevant advertising information when that information is responsive, e.g., to a search or to a web page on which our ads appear. You might note that some legal jurisdictions require that information be retained for law enforcement purposes for certain periods of time. Telephone records must be retained for periods of months to years. I think this is also true of email (but you might want to look more deeply into that). There is a tension, as always, between protection of privacy and protection of the society from criminals and finding the balance is not easy.

Q: The distributed architecture of the Internet has been key to its success It is quite reliable despite massive growth these past 15 years. Yet, a series of cut cables recently limited Internet access in parts of the Middle East, North Africa, and Southeast Asia. And last weekend, we saw how a government (in this case, Pakistan) can, under the right conditions, create a snowball effect and bring sites offline outside its borders. How can such disruptions be prevented in the future?

Cerf: They cannot absolutely be prevented. The problem with major cable cuts is simply that there are only a finite number of cables. However, more cables are being laid, but they often have to cross areas of tectonic activity. Satellite back up can help but is usually has less capacity.

Richer topological connectivity, avoiding clustering of capacity in the same physical place all help.

There was a disaster a few years back in a tunnel in Baltimore, Maryland, where all the major communication companies put fiber through the tunnel and a huge fire destroyed a great deal of connectivity at once. As to the situation in Pakistan, the method used to effect local (national) access control also had global effects.

Much of the Internet is based on trust that participants don't lie about networks they are connected to. There is a secured routing protocol that has been developed, but it is costly to implement in terms of resources (Secure Border Gateway Protocol), so there is still debate whether this is a practical way to remove this particular kind of vulnerability. The Internet engineering community generally is on the lookout for ways to improve the robustness of the system and these incidents motivate further work.

Q: If you had all the power in the universe, what would you do next with the Internet?

Cerf: 1. Get IPv6 running everywhere.

2. Finalize Internationalized Domain Name standards and start implementation.

3. Expand edge capacity to at least 1 Gb/s to all termination points on the network.

4. Get every one of the 6.5 B people on the planet online either by Mobile or fixed lines or both.

5. Standardize the Delay and Disruption Tolerant Network protocol suite (DTN), standardize in the Consultative Committee on Space Data Systems and start deployment for support of manned and robotic space exploration.

6. Complete research on semantic web concepts and deploy it.

7. Make speech a first class data citizen for purposes of searching the Internet.

8. Secure the Internet to defend against a wide range of abuse, increasing confidence in privacy and security of information and network operation.

and that's just for starters...


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