Untangling the web

Vinton Gray “Vint” Cerf is a distinguished, silver-haired gentleman in a three-piece suit. So perhaps I shouldn’t expect him to ride to our rescue with six guns blazing, but I’d settle for a small pearl-handled silver pistol.

I want to know who is going to clean up the internet now that it’s full of scammers, spammers and criminals running zombie networks, while its connecting pipes are clogged up with porn-to-porn file swapping.

Sadly, Cerf doesn’t have a silver bullet either. “It’s every man for himself,” he says, grinning. “In the end it seems every machine has to defend itself. The internet was designed that way.”

And he should know. In the early 1970s Cerf co-designed the TCP/IP protocol suite on which internet communications are based and was founding president of the Internet Society.

He led the team that engineered the first email service to run over the internet; he chaired Icann (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers); and he has been working with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory on the interplanetary internet.

It may be a case of “tomorrow, the stars”, but the here-and-now can seem a bit of a mess.

Cerf points out that “like every medium, the internet can be abused. When we think about it, we can commit fraud using the telephone system and postal service. We can perpetrate a variety of crimes and in every instance where we have had a technology like that society has said: ‘There are certain constraints, certain behaviours we will consider to be antisocial. We may not be able to prevent this happening, but we will choose to have consequences if we catch you.’

“This question comes up annually at the internet governance meetings. So I won’t be surprised if there are national and international agreements reached about certain unacceptable behaviours on the net and they will be enforced to one degree or another.”

However, Cerf is convinced that it is the internet’s openness — in allowing people with new ideas to do their thing without getting permission — that is the main source of its power.

“So I have this almost schizoid hope that we deal with some of the abuses in the net and, at the same time, we don’t lose this very open environment, so that information-sharing remains as open as it has been,” he says.

One example is Google, a company that Cerf — now 65 — joined three years ago as chief internet evangelist.

“Google wouldn’t exist if Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] hadn’t just built this thing and tried it out. The same is true with Jerry [Yang, co-founder] at Yahoo,” says Cerf.

The internet hardly needs an evangelist now. Yet it still needs defending and Cerf has been putting the case for “net neutrality” — a hot topic for United States politicians who are being lobbied by the phone companies.

“We’re expecting new legislation,” he says. “I think there should be very strong measures to prevent anti-competitive actions, so I’m actually very sanguine about the passing of legislation in the United States.”

He says Google’s aim is to ensure open communications, which means equally open to different technologies and different types of traffic. But limiting the amount of traffic each person uses is a different matter.

“As long as you get the capacity you’re paying for, that’s a form of fairness,” says Cerf. “It’s orthogonal to net neutrality.”

As the recognised “father of the internet” and winner of a Turing and other awards, Cerf also opens doors for Google.

Recently he spent the morning talking at the British Computer Society before visiting the British Guardian for a question-and-answer session with staff over a sandwich lunch. He started out by showing his dancing programmable Sony MP3 player, Rolly, which shows we can now put computer power wherever we need it, he says.

It’s really an ice-breaker to show he is not stuffy.

Cerf doesn’t think the net will be brought to its knees either by botnets or spam. “Spam is a problem, but we can filter it,” he says, and its demands on capacity are “small relative to the bits carrying images and video”.

As for the zombies, he says that “the botnet herders don’t want to destroy the internet: they need it to make a living. We may not think it’s acceptable, but that’s their motivation.”

He also doesn’t think the net is going to exhibit any form of consciousness. “I don’t believe we will see growing out of the network the kind of intelligence that sounds like a Fred Hoyle science fiction novel,” he says.

But “even if the internet is not intelligent and aware, it will feel more intelligent than it does today. But it is fair to say that if you want the system to do things you care about, you have to let it know what you care about. You have to give up some information voluntarily.”

Afterwards, over a coffee, I raise the spectre of the “two-tier internet” that some companies would like. There could be, for example, a trusted, controlled “overnet” for commercial and business use and an “undernet” where anything goes.

“It’s probably not wise to design systems that assume that a particular subset is trusted,” says Cerf. “I don’t mean to say you shouldn’t try, but every machine that can be compromised is a potential hazard.

“A machine that was OK yesterday is certainly not okay today: it may have taken in an infected memory stick. At the very least you have to keep validating it.

“My bias right now tends to be ‘it’s every man for himself’ — you need to be suspicious whether you’re inside the trusted cloud or not, and when it fails, the house of cards tends to collapse.”

But the continuous validation of known sources is not something for which the internet gives much help. “The idea of a virtual private network was not part of the original design,” says Cerf, with a grin. “It was actually an oversight. It didn’t occur to me that it would be useful until afterwards.”

Of course, no one foresaw how big, or how pervasive, the internet was going to become. In the end we should probably be grateful the designers opted not for control but for freedom. —

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