The end of the web as we know it?

Vint Cerf, chairman of Icann and co-creator of the TCP/IP standard, talks about the future of the internet and warns against creating a two-tier web system



Vint Cerf, chairman of Icann and co-creator of the TCP/IP standard, talks about the future of the internet and warns against creating a two-tier web system

There can be little argument that the internet has revolutionised communications, created businesses, slashed costs for consumers and transformed society.

At the same time, the internet's very openness has created some expectations that it should always be that way, and has raised security concerns that have now gone beyond nuisance level to affect the well-being of businesses, and target the identity of individuals.

Vint Cerf's development, together with Robert Khan, of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP), has rightly earned them recognition as fathers of the internet.

It is this pioneering work that earned both of them the US Presidential Medal of Freedom last year for creating what became the internet standard TCP/IP. Cerf and Khan developed TCP in 1973 for the US military while working for the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The protocol was later refined and split into two parts called TCP/IP, and became the standard for all internet communication.

Ironically, on the same day that he accepted his Presidential Medal, Cerf, now chief internet evangelist at Google and chairman of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann) which is responsible for managing and co-ordinating the Domain Name System (DNS), had to decline an offer to attend a congressional hearing on an issue that drives him almost as much as his pioneering work: net neutrality.

The debate on net neutrality, a reaction to draft telecoms legislation, is one of the most talked about issues in the US. Essentially, the legislation would require the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prohibit telecoms suppliers such as AT&T and Verizon from charging companies more for premium services, despite the argument that they need those revenues to upgrade networks.

Those favouring net neutrality provisions argue that if some companies get premium services, others must get inferior services, thus wrecking the equality that has allowed small website operators and bloggers the same reach as large companies, and which, as Cerf points out, allowed once tiny companies such as Google to get off the ground.

Cerf believes that "the remarkable social impact and economic success of the internet" is directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design.

"The internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services, and on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control.

"By placing intelligence at the edges rather than control in the middle of the network, the internet has created a platform for innovation, from voice over IP, to 802.11x Wi-Fi, to blogging. All that might never have evolved had central control of the network been required by design."

Instead, Cerf fears that versions of current bills will cause "great damage to the internet as we know it". And if US telecoms companies carry on in their present fashion, he says, it is going to end in court.

"Telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call, and network operators should not dictate what people can do online. We need to revise the FCC ruling eliminating common carriage provisions that created this problem, before we kill the goose that laid the golden egg."

In calmer moments, people have sat down and talked about how tele­coms companies can make more profitable use of the internet by delivering more innovative applications, products and services that run "on top of the plumbing".

But Cerf admits, "Many of the organisations have never had to compete in that space, and do not know how to do it."

On the other hand, those people who have inhabited the darker side of the internet have gleefully embraced the opportunities offered by TCP/IP to launch malware, spam and phishing attacks transmittable to billions of people in a second over the web.

Cerf accepts that the security of the system is now a serious concern. "I do worry about things like denial of service attacks, spam, terrorism and the way the net is being abused.

"It was not our intention to create anything that could lead to that. Where we find people putting things up on the net that are illegal, such as child pornography or threats to national security, or unwelcome, such as state-sponsored censorship, then we should be able to resist that."

He believes that organisations are beginning to make headway in countering spam, and suggests that cryptography should be used more.

"If we were redesigning the net from scratch, we would certainly be considering involving encryption for authentication and confidentiality. We are now increasingly reliant on algorithms to control spam, for example," he says.

From Cerf's experience, spam is less of a problem, because his personal e-mail is very easily filtered at Google. "I accept that spammers are trying to make a living, but I have ­often thought of alternatives to sending out 100 million messages."

He expects that to control spam in future, internet users are going to be increasingly reliant on algorithms, and this produces some problems and constraints. "Whitelists can be effective you just have to accept their ways of working. I do not mind that, for more control," says Cerf.

Along with coping with spam, Cerf has seen many organisations building defensive systems on their websites that can authenticate the information being input to verify identity.

"At Google I have a cryptography device that changes my password every 30 seconds or so. And the Bank of America has an image on the page from which you log in. If you do not see an image you recognise, you should not log in," he says.

Another key driver for Cerf is the widespread adoption of the next generation of Internet Protocol, IPV6, to replace IPV4, which dates back to the 1980s.

With the multitude of mobiles now in use, plus the growing adoption of the internet in China and India, there is a risk to the smooth running of the net unless IPV6 is adopted.

Roughly two-thirds of the currently available 4.3 billion IPV4 addresses are already in use. IPV6 architecture could increase the number of available addresses to 85,000 trillion.

"I am very much a big proponent of IPV6. Although network address translation has helped overcome IPV4 address scarcity, there is no doubt that if we continue at our current rate we will run out of IP addresses," says Cerf.

"About a third of the one billion internet users are in China, and we only have 4.3 billion unique addresses."

As chairman of the board at Icann, Cerf announced in 2004 that IPV6 was available for use in the DNS. But he admits that internet service providers have not progressed very far in its adoption.

"The ISPs have not taken it up, and so we are reliant on governments to play a role. Some Japanese companies have taken it up, while the Chinese are driving it for the 2008 Olympics," he says.

"I think we will begin to see some real demand for IPV6 as IPV6-enabled mobiles and set-tops are brought into the network."

Although he is regarded as a father of the internet, Cerf is usually reluctant to predict its future. But he does recognise the enormously innovative developments building around the infrastructure that he helped create not least at his new employer, Google.

"Google has made a huge impression, as has the development of voice over IP. I am always stunned by the massive sharing of information among individuals who offer their expertise and knowledge.

"And the development of spam and the secondary domain name market have impressed me, although I have to admit, not always positively. Indeed, the commercialisation of much of the internet has had unexpected side effects, which could not have been predicted, but perhaps were inevitable."

As to the future, Cerf believes the language and culture of the net will change as more Chinese and Indian users embrace the web.

"There are 380 million Asian users and that is sure to increase. We are going to see much larger amounts of content on the net."

Cerf is intrigued by the future adoption of radio frequency identification and its extension by groups such as EPCglobal to create an "internet of things", driving more efficient supply chains. He also foresees more interactive opportunities, applications and locations.

"I am sure the future will see the net being able to download things for you, transferring them to your car, laptop or link to other online points," he says.

Cerf is also keen to continue his work with Nasa's Jet Propulsion Labs to facilitate better communication in space. Such an "interplanetary internet" would make it possible for the various computers in space, from old and new missions, to interact and use each ­other's data.

And that is a long way from designing TCP/IP.

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