Vint Cerf: The father of the internet reflects on what his …


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It never occurred to us when we built the net that people would want to wreck it, says the architect of the internet.

Vint Cerf hasn’t changed in over a decade. Yes, the internet pioneer has become a septuagenarian since I last interviewed him in 2006. But at 75 he is impeccably dressed in his trademark three-piece suit, sharp as a tack and as busy as ever, shuttling around the world trying to improve his creation – or increasingly, trying to prevent its destruction.

Cerf, along with colleague Bob Kahn, in 1973 invented the Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) which underpin the workings of the internet. It is thanks to Cerf and Kahn that your computer has an IP address that keeps you connected to the net.

 

When Sir Tim Berners Lee came along 16 years later and developed the world wide web, the pieces fell into place for one of the biggest revolutions in history, one that gave us websites and search engines, cat videos and viral fake news stories.

Cerf admits to being surprised at the rise of the web.

“I didn’t anticipate how much people wanted to share what they knew. This avalanche of content, even though it was not driven by profit motive for the most part,” says Cerf.

“It still isn’t, remarkably. A lot of people just want to share what they know and have the satisfaction that it was helpful to somebody else.”

But it has also become big business, and Cerf was surprised at the extent of the bad behaviour that emerged as the internet went public.

“So you get spam and malware and disinformation and misinformation. All these harmful abuses occur,” laments Cerf.

“When we were designing and building the net, we were just a bunch of engineers trying to make it work. It didn’t even occur to us that anybody would want to wreck it. It was hard enough to get it to work at all, let alone mess it up.”

The original cloud

Today the internet is more entrenched in our lives than ever but faces myriad challenges – from making enough addresses available to accommodate the proliferation of the Internet of Things devices that seek an internet connection, to cyber attacks and efforts by some governments to try to control internet access and censor the content it delivers.

But those issues were far from Cerf’s mind in the early 1970s when he was an assistant professor at Stanford University working with Kahn on protocols to underpin a computing network for the US Department of Defense.

At the heart of the early internet was ARPANET, which was initially conceived to aid military command and control against nuclear threats. But other networks were emerging that needed to connect to ARPANET.

Cerf springs to his feet in the boardroom of the National Library in Wellington, where he has been meeting with archivists and librarians four floors below, and moves to a whiteboard in the corner.

He proceeds to draw the early internet, a network of networks with ARPANET at its centre. The early diagrams looked like a series of clouds. The name has stuck, giving us cloud computing.

“We would draw the networks as if they were little clouds,” says Cerf.

“We didn’t care what was inside or how it worked. Those data centres were just at the edge of what is effectively the internet.”

Since 2005, after stints in academia, public service and the private and not-for-profit sectors, Cerf has been a Google employee, its “chief internet evangelist”. He has for some time now been in the pay of one of the most powerful internet companies in the world, which has data centres spanning the globe.

Cerf estimates that Google’s own ‘B4’ internet backbone, which connects dozens of countries, probably carries more traffic than the public internet itself, due to the need to shift around and replicate masses of data across multiple data warehouses.

Amazon and Microsoft have similar networks, the three of them together responsible for the lion’s share of the world’s burgeoning cloud computing business. At least some of your data likely sits in one of their air-conditioned warehouses. But has it led to too much concentration of power?

Cerf, unsurprisingly, doesn’t think so. The economics of the cloud computing business naturally improve as it scales up and the cost of computing power is spread across more and more customers.

“There still is substantial competition for systems like this and an economy that drives scale,” he says.

“Look at how many car manufacturers there were in the early 1900s. There were scores of them and eventually it boiled down to three big ones.” 

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