These days, people have reasons to keep secrets in Washington. But I have a good grapevine, and as soon I heard scuttlebutt that Vint Cerf, Google Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist would be speaking this week in Northern Virginia, I knew I wanted to be there.
Odd that in the Internet age, finding details about this event wasn’t easy. No announcement. No informational website. No registration page. And zero search results. I only knew that Cerf was speaking at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (TJHSST) on June 6. When I contacted the school, even the front desk personnel weren’t aware. An hour later, I got a call back from an administrator. Yes, Mr. Cerf would be speaking at 3 pm. I headed over and found the auditorium packed, and the energy palpable.
In the back rows sat a smattering of parents, who, like me, finessed their way in to learn from this iconic person. “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything,” a dad told me, adding “My daughter thought Cerf was speaking because he developed Ion (the moniker for TJHSST’s intranet). I told her, ‘no, he pioneered The Internet!’”
In the early ‘80’s, Cerf was co-inventor of the now-ubiquitous TCP/IP protocol that allows communication between disparate IT devices. He was involved in the development of the first commercial email system. And he formed ICANN – the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers – the organization that makes it possible for you to read this article online. It’s not often that I anoint anyone as a Rock Star, but it fits here.
Cerf began his talk with a summary of the early beginnings of the Internet. He and TCP/IP co-inventor Bob Kahn were prescient, deciding not to patent TCP/IP because they recognized that doing so would inhibit growth of an industry that had not yet even formed. “The result,” he said, “was that many people adopted the Internet.” On January 1st, 1983 when the Internet was first turned on, “there was no central control, which allowed aggregate global collaboration.” The key insight he and Kahn discovered was that open architecture allowed millions of people to connect rapidly. Seems obvious today, but back then it was a revelation.
Cerf spoke about other technology milestones, including the World Wide Web (1993), the MOSAIC browser (1993), and Netscape (1994). But the heart of his talk was on “unfinished business.” Each point covered an issue that touches us daily, and each has a highly uncertain future.
- Strong authentication. The Internet has many structural impediments that make it difficult to ensure that identities are genuine.
- Cryptography. “Anonymity is still important because in some parts of the world it’s unsafe to speak up.”
- IPV6 address implementation. Rapid change and expansion in IoT, cyber-physical systems, and mobile devices present great connectivity and data challenges.
- Long-term digital preservation. The Internet is a fluid system, and unlike printed material, it’s not always possible to archive something in its fully-original form.
- Stable identifier systems. “Domains and URL’s are not stable,” Cerf said. Web pages can be taken down as easily as entire websites, or they can be redirected to new websites. This complicates academic and scientific research.
- Broadband wired or wireless access. Not everyone – or every place – has equal access to the Internet.
- Internet of Things (IoT). There’s an “avalanche of devices coming into being.” Cerf asked, “What happens when you have hundreds of devices connected in a house, and you move to a new house?” It’s not trivial to reconnect everything. Also, with voice-recognition devices such as Amazon or Alexa, how will the underlying AI adjust results when different voices use the same words?
- Misinformation, disinformation, and critical thinking. Last year’s presidential election underscored the perils.
- Consequences of malware and buggy software. The Smart Machine Age has increased our reliance on software to make critical life-and-death decisions. But programing is still subject to flaws.
- Ethics of software-based decisions. With IT, the “right” choice is not always an ethical one.
- Digital literacy. In a technology-dependent world, our understandings of how things work has not kept pace.
I intended to beat the crowd leaving the auditorium when Cerf wrapped up his talk. It was the end of school, and even a short delay would have me dodging students, and sitting in my car, snarled in a sea of boxy orange school buses. But the moderator allowed audience questions, and I indulged a few minutes to listen to the first one. It was from a student who asked Cerf for his opinion on net neutrality, and specifically, about the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations. Cerf’s answer was thoughtful and measured. He shared that in the 1990’s, there were about 8,000 Internet Service Providers, but broadband changed that by reducing the number to zero, one, or two providers for most of the US population. Cerf told the audience that if you’re a broadband provider selling subscription video entertainment, the natural inclination would be to slow down data on a Netflix – or similar service – because it competes with your cash cow. He said, “the simple idea is don’t inhibit competition,” and that it would be “a big mistake to abandon those rules.”
“The Internet was a stupid platform when it was originated,” Cerf said. I take that to mean that the Internet was never good at protecting us from ourselves. The unfinished business of the Internet tells us that in that regard, we still have a long way to go.