Always very well-dressed, with his suit and tie – which seems odd, since he works at Google, known for their laidback corporate culture — Vinton Cerf, vice-president of the search engine giant, works to promote the continued expansion of the Internet by championing open and readily-available access, especially in parts of the world that do not permit access, or for which cost is still a barrier.
A fan of history, biographies, science fiction and the odd mystery novel, perhaps he sees truth in the conspiratorial nature of his preferred reading material: Cerf explains that we should be even more cautious on the World Wide Web, given the increasing likelihood of hacking. On the other hand, we can expect ever more useful innovations in the near future, particularly in the realm of "artificial intelligence."
You're a very important name in the tech universe. What is your job like today?
Google is exploring many different ways of providing access to the Internet: through mobile and fixed radio, optical fiber, digital satellite, high altitude balloons, drones, repurposing of TV White Space and wi-fi, among many others. I really like that fact that, as part of Google's Research program, I am looking for new ways to use and implement the Internet. I work with many other organizations to explore new computing and communication technologies.
But you have other occupations...
Yes! Google also allows me to accept extracurricular activities with the academic and research community. I served a two-year term as President of the Association for Computing Machinery, as Chairman of the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), and as a member of the U.S. National Science Board, that oversees the U.S. National Science Foundation.
And how do you feel, considered as you are, a "father of the Internet?"
I am only one of the fathers of the Internet. My partner, Robert E. Kahn, started this research project at the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 1972. He involved me in the program in the spring of 1973. Many, many others have contributed to the evolution and development of the Internet. I consider myself fortunate to have been part of the effort from its earliest stages.
What was it like to create it?
In the early stages, we were focusing on the use of packet switching and computer communication for military command and control, and to create a collaborative research environment, where sharing resources was the norm. As the Internet evolved, the World Wide Web emerged, around the end of 1991, nearly 20 years after the first papers describing the Internet were published. The WWW was one of the fastest-growing applications, in partthanks to the protocols and the standards associated with the creation of web pages. Please note that the WWW is NOT the Internet, and vice versa. The WWW rides on top of the Internet. There are applications beyond the World Wide Web, although they are often triggered by web-based actions. Streaming video is a good example: often initiated by a web interaction, the stream comes via protocols supplemental to the WWW's http.
Why has the Internet grown so rapidly?
The basic protocols were given away, without restrictions, in 1974. Bob Kahn and I believed that the best way to get the Internet built was to encourage anyone interested to implement and use the Internet, in whatever way they wished. [Inventor of the WWW] Tim Berners-Lee continued this practice of giving way the specifications of the World Wide Web, and making the source code of web pages visible, so webmasters could learn from each other. There were, and are, few barriers to entry of new services or applications making use of the Internet. This permission-less innovation lies at the heart of the Internet's appeal and success.
Why has it become so important for us today?
I think the best way to understand this is to recognize the massive number of applications on mobile devices, web sites devoted to every topic under the sun, the facilitation of e-commerce, access to government and private sector services...the list is long and growing. Humans are quick to adapt anything that seems to make life easier (we might add the Internet to such basics as fire, the wheel, the spear and bows and arrows).
And then we tend to misuse those good things. What's the good and bad of spending time online?
I find the World Wide Web and Google's search engine indispensable as a tool for learning and discovery. I am online many hours each the day, and I prefer to work while I am online, for ready access to timely information. I have learned that it takes some effort to determine whether information found on the Internet is accurate — this is the challenge of ready access to so much information: the need to apply critical thinking to distinguish the good from the bad. There is also the threat of malware, hackers, infected web sites and botnets. There remains much to do, to improve technology, to increase security and to refine user behaviors, to produce a safer environment for everyone. We've achieved a lot with the advent of this technology, but there are some users who have come off badly from it: those individuals who are addicted to and dependent on the Internet... Like any infrastructure, it can be a problem to be overly-dependent on it – like the power grid or the road system. Nonetheless, I think the Internet has delivered a great deal that would otherwise never have been available any other way.
What of all the hacking and privacy invasion reported nowadays? How should people deal with all this? Do you think it will get worse?
Yes, it can get worse. We need to change user behavior to be more conscious of good security practices, be careful with documents, use digital signatures to authenticate and validate the integrity of the information in the Internet.
Do you agree with the statement that the Internet is a "land without law?"
No, I think many real world laws apply, as well, to the users of the Internet. We can probably improve the legal framework for internet use, as well as establishing agreements on international use of the Internet, and access to its contents.
If you could help to create the web, from scratch, today, would you change something on it?
Increased security, resistance to various malware attacks, attention to safety, strong authentication, more privacy.
Do you think it's still growing, or at some point will there be a limit?
There is still plenty of room for growth if we implement IPv6 everywhere.
What is the future of the Internet?
Higher speeds, better and more affordable access, more mobile usage, increased safety and robustness, increasing variety of applications, extension to use in space for exploration, the coming Internet of Things, smart cities, personal sensor systems ("quantified self,") instrumented buildings for security, environmental controls and management of resources. The Internet will make use of increasing amounts of software we might think of as "artificial intelligence"— assisting us and conversing with us, as humans do. And that is just the beginning!