Vinton Cerf, co-author of the TCP/IP protocol and one of the creators of email, is one of the founding fathers of the internet. In this exclusive interview vnunet.com speaks with this technology visionary about designing the internet, expanding the network to connect other planets and making bombs.
You are described as the father of the internet. Is this an accurate description?
To say that I am the father is not too hot. There is more than one father of the internet and I am one of them - not the only one. It's an overstatement. There are other people who did the design work who deserve equal billing such as Bob Kahn who worked on TCP/IP and Tim Berners Lee who developed the world wide web. I'm sorry if people are disappointed that I'm not the only father of the internet.
When you were doing the early research work on ARPANet - the forerunner of the modern internet - did you realise how significant this would finally be?
Yes. With the ARPANet in 1971 we developed the first email. There was no question in my mind how important this was going to be. It was strange, though, working in a comp sci research environment and not understanding how companies could not figure out how important email was going to be. We had a hard time selling it to them, which seems really odd now.
In your opinion, what were the major milestones associated with the development of the internet?
The first was in 1971 with the development of email. Before that we could see how powerful it was. The internet was really with us in 1973 or 1974, but the most important moment was in 1977 when we managed to link up three different packet networks and get them to operate together. This was the proof we needed to see that the architecture of the protocol was working and the standard system followed.
When did you start to roll out the system which was to become the internet?
In 1983 we began to deploy the internet in the US and parts of Europe. Then in 1986 the first commercial routers were produced by companies like Cisco. In 1989 the first commercial email and corporate services emerged onto the market. These were the milestones - each as step on the way to the internet.
What are the greatest problems which we need to overcome in order for the internet to realise its full potential?
The first thing we need to do is get rid of per-minute charges. The other major problem is rolling out broadband. In the UK you have a serious problem as BT is standing in the way. It owns the twisted pairs [of copper] and needs to be forced to open these up to other companies so that digital subcriber line services can be adopted. It's a very big disappointment that this is not happening.
The internet has a reputation for being anarchic - a kind of Wild West. Do you think it should be subjected to tighter regulation or do you feel that online freedom should be paramount?
I see no need for the internet to be anarchic. There are many people trying to impose regulations and I'm not too enthusiastic about this. I recognise you need some law. If you break the law on the net you should be liable for the same penalties as if you break the same law using the telephone or the postal service.
Do you think it's reasonable to expect internet service providers (ISPs) to regulate their users?
No, absolutely not. You can't expect ISPs to do this. There's just too much material to make this realistic.
What are your views on online surveillance, given the controversy arising from the UK's Regulation of Investigatory Powers (RIP) Act and the US Echelon project?
I don't know enough details of the RIP Act, but my impression is that it gives the Government enormous latitude to invade people's privacy. There needs to be a balance. I don't argue that the Government should never have access to people's personal details, but there need to be checks and balances to prevent misuse.
How do you feel about people preserving their online privacy using strong encryption products such as PGP which has been banned by the US government?
I am a very strong proponent of good quality encryption to keep personal data and business transactions secure online. I also feel that people should be able to authenticate themselves online with digital signatures. But I would not argue that we should export military grade cryptography to individuals.
You are currently working to develop a so-called Interplanetary Internet - the IPN project - which allows a standardised system of communication between devices in outer space. You have faced criticism from commentators who say this is not a worthwhile project given that the internet on earth suffers with so many issues and needs so much improvement. How do you react to that?
I think that this is a very poor argument that is not at all well-reasoned. We are exploring the solar system. NASA has to work and communicate with other bodies such as the European Space Agency. We need standard communications to get the right results. A major part of this centres on adopting standard internet protocol.
There is also the point that we are working out problems with radio systems to landers that are dropped onto planets and then have to self organise. There are similarities here with work that is going on here on earth so that we are able to learn lessons. There is no conflict - they are very much complementary projects.
What are the principal technical issues which need to be overcome before your Interplanetary Internet can boldly go where no protocol has gone before?
The delays can be very, very long - sometime hours depending on where the sites are in the solar system. The TCP protocol will just not work with that much delay. We need to invent a whole new protocol which allows for the fact that the end points often can't see each other. It's more like email - a kind of deferred communication.
We'll stick to TCP/IP on the surface, but we need to create interplanetary gateways to host the long-delay communications. These could be housed in down stations or on satellites.
According to your CV, in addition to your main work you belong to, or act as a consultant for, hundreds of professional and government bodies, committees etc. Have you cloned yourself?
No, I've not cloned myself. That's the beauty of networks. You can appear to be in many places at once.
How did you first become interested in science as a career?
When I was 10 or so I was reading lots of science books. Then I remember that I was in the fifth grade and was very bored with maths. Then my teacher gave me a grade seven algebra book, which was great fun. Then chemistry took my interest. Then I was introduced to computers at 16 and it was all over. I knew then what I wanted to do.
In your younger years you had a keen interest in chemistry and, in particular, pyrotechnics. Did you start your scientific career making bombs?
No, not bombs. We used to make miniature volcanoes with plaster of Paris filled with hypergolic glycerine for displays. We also used to make match head rockets, but not bombs.
What's your favourite film?
One that I've enjoyed recently was a film with Peter Sellers called Being There. It was an amazing piece of acting. I find the main plot line very worrying that a gardener whose head was completely empty could rise up to be a head of state.
You have recently received a medal from President Clinton. How did he compare with the empty headed gardener in the film?
Bill Clinton may have made some poor judgements sometimes, but I was very impressed at how smart he was.
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