Vint Cerf: The internet and 40 years of openness

Father of the internet and Google evangelist, Vint Cerf, speaks to Computer Weekly about tapping, privacy and IP addresses

The father of the internet Vint Cerf, chief internet evangelist, Google, speaks to Computer Weekly about tapping, privacy and IP addresses

On September 10 1973, at at the University of Sussex Vint Cerf gave the first public presentation of a seminal piece of research that would define the modern internet.

Cerf and co-author Robert Kahn distributed the paper, titled "A Protocol for Packet Network Interconnection", to a  special meeting of the INWG (International Network Working Group) at Sussex. University, describing a method to communicate across a network of networks.

This network of networks, powered by TCP/IP, represents the modern internet. With the 40th anniversary approaching, it is hard to fathom the extent to which the internet protocol, TCP/IP is embedded into every aspect of modern society. And this trend is set to expand phenomenally with the growth of connected devices, the internet of things.

Address exhaustion

He says: "My concern is that the address space is 32-bits. It can only support 4.3bn terminations. We thought it would be enough in 1973, but as of 2011 the original internet space is exhausted." So why has the internet not migrated to IPv6 given that in 1998 the IETF adopted the 128-bit internet address space to expand from 4.3bn to 340 trillion trillion trillion devices? IPv6 is not pervasive, he says. While IPv6 software is installed on operating systems and routers Cerf says: "The ISPs have been reluctant to turn it on. This is a constant debate because IPv6 is the only way to expand the address space."

We understand why it was done. But cascading addresses through NAT is a recipe for disaster

Vint Cerf

Cerf says network address translation is a hack to fake more internet addresses. "NAT is architecturally brittle." He says the cable companies that may have been allocated 10m addresses are stuck with NAT, as it is the only way they can expand. Nevertheless, NAT is not the right solution as far as Cerf is concerned. "We understand why it was done. But cascading addresses through NAT is a recipe for disaster. We are lobbying very hard for them to switch over to IPv6 and we are making progress, but it is too slow."


Cerf is concerned about the challenges facing users arising from the globalisation of the internet. "ICANN is expanding the Top Level Domain names (TLD)  and the internationalisation of domain names. "People cannot express their language using a Latin character set." Now while it took a long time for the process to unfold TLDs have increased by a factor of 10 from 300 to 2300. Presumably this is a good thing? But as Cerf explains: "A side effect of the expansion of TLDS is people won't know what TLD to use. It causes people to go to search engines." So given that he is currently Google's chief internet evangelist, the expansion of TLDS may be good for business, but not necessarily great for users.

State-sponsored hacking and security

An interview with the father of the internet would not be complete without a discussion on privacy and security.

In his 2002 paper, The internet is for everyone, Cerf wrote: "The Internet is for everyone - but it won't be if its users cannot protect their privacy and the confidentiality of transactions."

His concerns on this subject remain the same. "Authoritarian regimes block websites like YouTube. You'll be surprised how many countries try to eradicate and filter content and prosecute people. They throw bloggers in  jail and clicking the Like button on facebook can be seen as anti establishment."

While the recent exposes of PRISM have raised awareness of the extent to which sovereign states try to exert control over the internet, Cerf says the wider hacking community is a much bigger problem compared to state sponsored hacking. "Hacking is not only state-level. Individuals have enormous power to break into the OS, and abuse browsers. It is a hard problem to tackle because a small group of hackers can control a botnet. They have the capacity to cause a lot of trouble."

Users may have to wait a decade when the Internet reaches the grand age of 50 before internet researcher have a strong enough grip on hacking that the internet can be deemed safe. He says: "Security will never be solved in its entirety because hackers are exploiting bugs in software but we can design systems that reinforce security mechanism, which will create a potent combination to stop attacks."

Who controls the internet?

Cerf is a strong supporter of net neutrality but there is constant pressure on the internet to control access. He says: "Freedom of access is the value of the internet. It is fully connected. You don't want a network provider to tell you which places you can get to." For instance a cable company with a video on demand service may block access to a rival service like Netflix, or it may degrade the user's connectivity speed."This would breach net neutrality because it is prescribing use of the internet." But he concedes that sometimes walled gardens that control internet access may be needed. "Mobile apps violate net neutrality, but some of the apps are dangerous so you need some ability to say I won't run that app."

Cerf has spoken out in the past on the International Telecommunications Union getting involved in internet standards. The ITU has had a role to play in basic telecommunications standards, radio frequencies and capacity building. But, says Cerf, “Its standards making and treaty mechanisms have been focused on low-level communications standards, and has nothing to do with the internet. But the ITU has been trying to expand its remit to not only include internet players but also content.”

The power of open

IP has survived the rise and fall of the greatest IT empires from IBM in the 60s to Apple and Google today and it has become all pervasive, something that these mega corporations could probably never achieve. Why? Cerf says: "All of the standards on the internet are given away. There is no licensing required by the internet standards bodies. It is about freedom to implement. There are never any objection to building proprietary software on top of the open protocols. People are also free to develop free software like ChromeOS. At Google we give away ChromeOS because we want there to be no barrier to adoption. Google has a different business model as it sells advertising."

Vint Cerf is speaking at the ScotSoft 2013 conference on August 26.


Read more on Internet infrastructure