Vint Cerf: we've only scratched internet's surface

The Google vice-president, and one of the scientists who made the internet happen, discusses its impact over the past decade and the changes it will bring in the years to come

The network pioneer who helped make it happen expects more big changes

The first connection in the ARPAnet, an invention of the U.S. military's Advanced Research Projects Agency, was made in 1969, which means that 2009 was technically the internet's fortieth birthday. In actuality, however, the internet as we know it is much younger.

It's only over the past decade, when slow dial-up access gave way to faster broadband, that the internet began to revolutionize virtually every aspect of our lives, from communications and entertainment to education and government. The first decade of the new millennium was thereby undisputedly the decade of the internet.

One of the scientists who was there in the early days and who helped make it all happen was Vint Cerf. In 1972, he was a young assistant professor at Stanford University near San Francisco. Cerf was one of the head designers of the common technical language — known as TCP/IP, or Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol — that allowed the various computers connected to the network to talk to each other. In the early 1980s, he moved to phone company MCI, where he helped design the first commercial email system. Once that system was connected to the descendant of the ARPAnet, the real internet was born.

These days, Cerf is a vice-president and "chief internet evangelist" at search giant Google. When he isn't lobbying governments for fairer internet access rules, he's working on his new pet project — the "intergalactic internet," or the extension and improvement of data communications between the various spacecraft in orbit.

While the internet has caused its share of change and upheaval over the past decade, Cerf believes we've only scratched the surface. Not only is a relatively small percentage of the world's population — about a quarter — currently using the internet, but the primary method of accessing it is quickly transforming. That means the coming decade will bring further big changes.

"A large fraction of the world's population may have their first experience, and possibly their only experience, with the internet by way of mobiles simply because the cost factors are so attractive," he says. "It's a very important avenue for internet access, and that's new in the last decade."

With internet-enabled smartphones taking off, many more users will come online over the next decade, which will affect some of the trends we're seeing today. While it may seem like the internet is becoming more locked down, with industries such as newspapers and music cracking down on free content, an influx of users — particularly from developing countries — could restore that equilibrium.

"The internet is a really big tent," Cerf says. "In theory, it can support the full range of models, one of which is, 'Here's my information and I'm happy you can use it,' and the other one is, 'Here's the information and you can't have it unless you pay me for it,' and perhaps some things in-between. There is a full spectrum of models."

Free is not over

Cerf cites Reforma, a Mexican newspaper, that is succeeding by using a hybrid of access methods. Subscribers to its paper edition get free access to the online version, while those people who want the newspaper only on the internet pay a reduced subscription fee. Many other newspapers, however, will choose to make all of their content free and concentrate instead on building more online advertising.

"Free is not going to go away. Either the advertising model will still work or there will still be literally hundreds of millions of people who want to put their information on the net and want people to have access to it," Cerf says. "People have this desire to share their information simply because other people find it useful."

He also believes the next decade will deliver the long-promised "smart grid," where appliances that use electricity will be internet-connected and can thereby be managed from any computer. Internet-enabled televisions, ovens and washing machines will not only let users turn them on or off remotely, they'll also allow for two-way communications. Power companies, for example, will be able to warn people to turn off their air conditioners to avoid a blackout.

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"Those kinds of smart appliances are going to be very popular and will propagate quickly, partly because they save money and partly because they will allow users to manage their consumption of electricity and the appliances they have more effectively," Cerf says. Video game consoles such as the Xbox 360 and internet-connected PVRs are "a small example of what is to come."

One of Cerf's personal causes is the issue of net neutrality, which has morphed in meaning over the past decade. His definition is simple: net neutrality is about preventing anti-competitive actions by internet service providers. A cable company, for example, makes most of its money delivering video to customers — it may not want someone else doing the same thing over its internet pipes. Neutrality proponents believe strict laws are needed to prevent that sort of thing from happening.

The ultimate solution, he says, may be a combination of enforced transparency and user tools. If ISPs are required to disclose how they're managing their networks, and if users are provided with the proper technology to see how their connections are faring at any given time, anti-competitive actions should be hard to conduct without being detected.

"I wouldn't object out of hand that proposal," he says. "It has been the means by which some abusive practices have been exposed here in the U.S."

Cerf is pleased with the direction the United States is taking in regards to providing internet access to its citizens. Government and regulators there are beginning to favour the sort of open-access rules, where big network-owning companies must rent their infrastructure to other competitors, that have been in place in Europe and parts of Asia for years. Cerf thinks open access is the wave of the future — Canada, incidentally, is going against the grain by increasingly freeing network owners from their open-access responsibilities.

He also thinks the next decade will bring more government investment in broadband access — like the $41 billion Australia is spending — as more countries see that the corporate motivations of large network owners don't always coincide with national interests.

"Governments should look at investment in broadband as a national priority on the grounds that having broadband access for virtually everyone creates opportunities for the development of the economy that wouldn't otherwise be available," he says. "Looking at this from a national investment point of view, you might have a rather different perspective than you would have if you were looking at it solely from a business perspective."