‘China’s splin­ter­net plans are a dog’s break­fast’

Vint Cerf ’s orig­i­nal vi­sion of an in­ter­net with­out bor­ders may not al­ways be the global stan­dard, he tells Margi Mur­phy in San Fran­cisco ‘The thing which is the most trou­bling thing about the in­ter­net en­vi­ron­ment is the buggy soft­ware’

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Business -

If you ask Vint Cerf what he would do dif­fer­ently when he wrote the tech­ni­cal stan­dards for the in­ter­net as we know it, he will give you two an­swers. The “hon­est” an­swer takes you on a jour­ney of how the in­ter­net was in­vented. The other, which he saves for pub­lic ap­pear­ances, din­ner par­ties, and con­ver­sa­tions with jour­nal­ists, is of a man who wishes he could tell his younger self how what is be­ing built on top of the “in­ter­net” could harm the world that will shortly be­come de­pen­dent on it.

“The thing which is the most trou­bling thing about the in­ter­net en­vi­ron­ment is the buggy soft­ware,” he says.

“You hear peo­ple wor­ry­ing about ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence and ma­chine learn­ing but I’m wor­ried about au­ton­o­mous soft­ware run­ning on the In­ter­net of Things [net­works at­tached to smart de­vices] that have bugs.

“We have a lot of work to do to clean up the ecol­ogy that we’ve cre­ated.”

In 1973, Cerf, a Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor, and his col­league Bob Kahn, in­vented the stan­dards that we can thank for keep­ing our de­vices con­nected to the in­ter­net.

The pair de­vel­oped the In­ter­net Pro­to­col (IP) and Trans­mis­sion Con­trol Pro­to­col (TCP) for the US mil­i­tary, which al­lowed com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween dif­fer­ent kinds of soft­ware, hard­ware, op­er­at­ing sys­tems and net­works.

They were adamant they be ag­nos­tic, so that soft­ware devel­op­ers, the likes of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, or Mark Zucker­berg, could build on top.

The in­ter­net launched in 1983. Five years later, Bri­ton Tim Bern­ers Lee cre­ated the world wide web while work­ing at Cern.

Now, decades later, Cerf looks to the fu­ture of the in­ter­net, he can see how the net­work he de­signed with­out ge­o­graph­i­cal bor­ders may not al­ways be the global stan­dard, and we may be fac­ing a “splin­ter­net”, as coined by the Cato In­sti­tute.

Last year, China pro­posed the New In­ter­net Pro­to­col, a set of stan­dards to re­place the in­ter­net Cerf helped cre­ate. Un­sur­pris­ingly, he thinks lit­tle of it.

“It is a dog’s break­fast of ideas that do not fit to­gether very well”. Not that the Chi­nese en­gi­neers care, he opines. “What they wanted to do was to get more con­trol.”

But China has in­vested heav­ily in tech­nol­ogy and is clos­ing in on a bil­lion users on the in­ter­net.

It is home to sev­eral hugely suc­cess­ful in­ter­net com­pa­nies, like Alibaba and Baidu, which of­fer sim­i­lar ser­vices to Ama­zon and Google. And for that, Cerf says, “you have got to give it to them”.

They have also been suc­cess­ful in fil­ter­ing, block­ing and us­ing so­cial me­dia as an in­cen­tive for good be­hav­iour and now are sell­ing that tech­nol­ogy to coun­tries which like that kind of con­trol, he says.

“So the pol­lu­tion is al­ready in the bananas.”

Cerf says he is wor­ried that Bri­tain plans to re­tain equip­ment from Huawei, the Chi­nese telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion gi­ant, in its 5G net­works, de­spite warn­ings from the US that it could be a threat to na­tional se­cu­rity.

“I have trou­ble be­liev­ing that it doesn’t have any soft­ware in there that lets the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment get ac­cess to any­thing,” he says.

Worse still, he adds, the rout­ing sys­tems used around the world are not ad­e­quately pro­tected.

De­spite his legacy as one of the “fathers of the in­ter­net”, Cerf could not be fur­ther from the stereo­typ­i­cal tech­nocrats of Sil­i­con Val­ley.

Al­ways seen in a three-piece suit, the Con­necti­cut-born en­gi­neer is gre­gar­i­ous, and par­tial to a joke.

Dur­ing a video call from his study, in front of a wall stacked with awards, he is in­ter­rupted by a ring­ing phone.

“Damn it, that is so an­noy­ing,” he says. He shouts some­thing that sounds like Rus­sian down the line for 30 sec­onds and places the phone down. “Well that took care of that,” he says, chuck­ling.

It might be this light-hearted na­ture that has led Cerf to be­come some­thing of an in­ter­net per­son­al­ity, cam­paign­ing for top­ics close to his heart like in­ter­net se­cu­rity, net neu­tral­ity and the im­por­tance of back­ing up in­for­ma­tion that might one day be lost in vir­tual space, through­out his ca­reer.

De­spite his protests, net neu­tral­ity was re­pealed by the US gov­ern­ment in 2018.

How­ever, with­out Cerf, we may not have had ac­cess to the in­ter­net in the way we do now.

By the late Eight­ies, US gov­ern­ment agencies had cre­ated nu­mer­ous net­works for elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, which pro­hib­ited pub­lic use.

Cerf was then work­ing for MCI Mail, one of the first com­mer­cial email providers, and re­quested per­mis­sion from the US gov­ern­ment to ex­per­i­ment and see if he could con­nect MCI’s pri­vate email­ing sys­tem to the in­ter­net, he told in 2012.

He was given a year. When it proved suc­cess­ful, sev­eral other email providers lob­bied for ac­cess to be opened up, and pub­lic email ac­counts caught on.

In 2005, Cerf took up a role as in­ter­net evan­ge­list at Google and in­formed global pol­icy de­vel­op­ment and “con­tin­ued spread of the in­ter­net”, ac­cord­ing to a com­pany bi­og­ra­phy.

He has ad­vo­cated for ac­ces­si­bil­ity by de­sign in Google’s ser­vices.

In the 15 years since he joined the search en­gine, pub­lic per­cep­tion of the com­pany has taken a southerly turn and peo­ple’s opin­ions of Google have mor­phed from see­ing it as a cam­pus of su­per smart pi­o­neers mak­ing the world a bet­ter place, to a con­glom­er­ate ad­ver­tis­ing ma­chine that is po­lit­i­cally bi­ased (against each po­lit­i­cal side, de­pend­ing on who you are ask­ing).

Cerf has some idea why the back­lash against tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies has been so strong.

In the be­gin­ning, ap­pli­ca­tions on the in­ter­net were “brand new and shiny” and busi­nesses were boom­ing as a re­sult of their search en­gine.

But its neu­tral na­ture al­lowed abu­sive na­ture like fake news, cy­ber bul­ly­ing and other ills of so­cial me­dia to emerge.

He com­pares the in­dus­try to car­mak­ers. “We didn’t have rules when cars showed up on the road, and we fi­nally re­alised there had to be some or peo­ple run into each other.”

Google is fac­ing a reck­on­ing as gov­ern­ments, ad­ver­tis­ers and con­sumers ap­ply pres­sure for it to po­lice its ser­vices to pre­vent harm and cen­sor con­tent, leav­ing its po­si­tion as a neu­tral plat­form hang­ing in the bal­ance.

Whether the in­ter­net un­der­pin­ning it will re­main free, and neu­tral, for the fore­see­able is just as hard to pre­dict.

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the in­ter­net, be­lieves the UK should be wary of Huawei’s in­volve­ment in its in­fra­struc­ture

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