This article was published on July 12, 2013

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf talks online privacy, Google Glass and the future of libraries

Internet pioneer Vint Cerf talks online privacy, Google Glass and the future of libraries
Paul Sawers
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Paul Sawers

Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check h Paul Sawers was a reporter with The Next Web in various roles from May 2011 to November 2014. Follow Paul on Twitter: @psawers or check him out on Google+.

From online banking to exploring the farthest reaches of the universe, it’s difficult to imagine how we ever got by without the Internet.

We can work, study, order groceries, watch movies, book flights… all from a cheap laptop and leather sofa. While some would argue that’s actually not healthy, the fact that it’s even possible is a marvel in itself.

To say it has fundamentally changed how we live our lives would be a truism for sure, but sometimes it’s worth just sitting back and considering: how did we get here?

Key figures

This picture taken on April 30, 2013 in Geneva shows a 1992 copy of the world's first web page. The world's first web page will be dragged out of cyberspace and restored for today's Internet browsers as part of a project to celebrate 20 years of the Web. The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) said it had begun recreating the website that launched that World Wide Web, as well as the hardware that made the groundbreaking technology possible. British physicist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, also called W3 or just the Web, at CERN in 1989 to help physicists to share information, but at the time it was just one of several such information retrieval systems using the Internet.  AFP PHOTO / FABRICE COFFRINI        (Photo credit should read FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

There are many notable figures in the history of Internet. Tim Berners-Lee is one such luminary, the British computer scientist who created the World Wide Web – a way of accessing information on the Internet – while working at CERN.

As you’ll no doubt know, the Web and the Internet – while reliant on each other – are different things. The Internet is a network infrastructure that provides the framework for computers to connect globally. And long before Berners-Lee arrived on the scene, another computer scientist, going by the name of Vint Cerf, was working on the building blocks of the modern-day Internet as we know it now.

Cerf was involved in the project that saw the first ever message sent from one computer to another on the ARPANET, a predecessor to the Internet, way back in 1969. And after receiving his doctorate from UCLA, Cerf became an assistant professor at Stanford University where he started research on packet network interconnection protocols and co-designed the Department of Defense (DoF) TCP/IP protocol suite.

Today, Cerf is VP and Chief Internet Evangelist for a rather large online company you may have heard of before. Google.

When Cerf arrived at The Guardian’s Activate conference in London this week to talk all-things-Internet, TNW was eager to hear what he had to say. He’s one of the founding-fathers of that thing you’re reading this on, after all. And we don’t mean your iPad.

What better topic to start on than with PRISM, the controversial data-collection program set-up in the wake of the Protect America Act? Journalism professor Jeff Jarvis was on interview duties.


Maintaining privacy online

“There are lots of dangers, the situation that we’re reading about with PRISM, among other things, they raise a lot of privacy questions, but there are many other dangers on the Internet that we need to protect against,” says Cerf.

“The ‘net started out as a place built by almost-homogenous geeks, but once it gets into public hands, you essentially touch the entire population. So we’re faced with the general population problem.”

Choosing to side-step specific issues around PRISM, Cerf opted for a more general online privacy and security route, but it made for an interesting dialogue anyway.

Cerf on two-factor authentication

“There are technological things that can be done, should be done and are being done to improve the network’s resilience against various forms of attack,” he said. “Cryptography is often mentioned as a solution, but it’s not the solution to everything. There’s no one place where you can fully barrier some of the problems.”

Indeed, Cerf looked to some of the most obvious ways of protecting yourself online, including choosing solid passwords. But he had a particular penchant for 2-factor authentication.

“Two-factor authentication is kind of annoying, but it’s actually much better than reusable passwords,” says Cerf.

“I just moved to London and I’ve already been accepted by Barclaycard. And you know that reader they send you (a personal device required to log into your Internet banking account), I was thinking ‘what’s that?’. Now I understand that this is two-factor authentication right there, and I’m damned impressed. And I’m also impressed that people are actually using it, because it’s slightly annoying having to carry one around with you.”

Internet lock

Cerf on encryption

Certainly, with all that’s been going on of late with PRISM, there is a growing anxiety about what the future holds for the Internet with its current trajectory. The reason authorities are able to access so much information about people is two-fold – data is increasingly being stored in the cloud. And frankly, the public are willing participants in sharing their information.

Jarvis said that he feared there would be a big push against this, with companies instilling stricter controls and people becoming far more dubious about ‘the cloud’ and the way their data is managed. More specifically, that “…wonderful moment when Google can read my email and give me my boarding pass” – does that go away with encryption?

“We generally prefer to encrypt things that go in and go out – information that’s in transit,” says Cerf.

“When it’s inside, it’s frequently not encrypted, and that means we can look at your calendar, and we realize you’re supposed to be somewhere at a certain time. We try very hard to ensure all information in there is isolated. We also care a great deal about making sure we’ve strongly authenticated the users, so that the wrong user doesn’t get to someone else’s data. And that’s why two-factor authentication is important. ”

Sure, but what about encrypting everything on the inside, once it’s arrived at the destination? That’s the real conundrum – if it’s encrypted, it seriously hinders many online services we all enjoy today.

“I’m not sure encrypting everything inside the system would be a smart move,” continues Cerf. “For us (Google), if it prevents us from offering the services that enable all the applications that you get for free, that would not be a good thing from a business point-of-view, and it wouldn’t be a good thing for your point-of-view either.

“I think the answer to this is a very careful architecture, that says ‘once you’re inside this box, you’re safe’. And don’t go outside of this box, without making sure the information is protected.”

Cerf on the media…


Given this was a very media-focused gathering and, well, ‘newspapers’ and ‘digital’ are becoming increasingly inseparable, it would seem somewhat remiss not to delve a little into the current news-publication climate.

“Having spent time in England since the 1970s, I’ve read a lot of the different newspapers, and I’ve been disappointed that The Times (a Murdoch-owned daily) has disintegrated,” he says. “As far as I can tell, The Guardian may be the last bastion of good quality reporting.”

Though this was indeed a Guardian event, assurances were given that this wasn’t a paid endorsement. But given Google’s often been fingered for its role in the demise of the newspaper industry (rightly or wrongly), the debate about the state of the press is certainly a relevant discussion point for Google’s prominent evangelist.

“The question is how do you rebuild the model that supports good quality journalism, which I submit to you is absolutley essential for a democratic society,” says Cerf. “We must have a press that is high quality, and willing to take risk.”

Indeed, Cerf also posited that the whole news-reporting model will likely have to change as we know it, so that it shifts beyond one of mere information-sharing to one of empowerment.

“What if the information we got from the news was not just information? What if it allowed us to take actions in response to what we’d learned?,” he says. “What if you were guided to places to take action?” What we’re talking here is news becoming a service.

Cerf’s crystal ball: Internet of Things, Fiber and Google Glass


An interesting comparison was drawn between Gutenberg‘s invention of the printing press way back in the 1400s, centering around notions that it would disrupt the Catholic Church and spark revolutions.

For Cerf, as one of the key figures in developing the medium known as the Internet, Jarvis hypothesized that we’re now at the equivalent of 1472 in his Internet. So – where does he see things going from here?

“One nightmare is that we aren’t able to keep it stable, and we’re not able to sustain the growth or protect people’s safety,” says Cerf. “I worry about that and I lose sleep over it.”

“On the other hand, I’m an engineer, and so problems are what you want…engineers love to have problems so they can solve them.”

In specific terms, Cerf says that he sees the so-called Internet of Things as one of the most obvious and biggest developments – “there’s no way of stopping that,” he says.

And faster Internet speeds, enabled by the likes of the Google Fiber roll-out that’s currently restricted to the Kansas City area, will help progress things massively. “People will see that it’s possible to build, at reasonable costs, these kinds of high-speed systems,” says Cerf.

But the real next big thing, according to Cerf, will be in relation to how computers augment human intellect. “This is what Doug Engelbart hoped for (he invented the computer mouse, and he sadly passed away just last week aged 88), and he worked very hard to build a system that did that, in the 1960s and demonstrated it in 1968, called The Mother of all Demos.”

Perhaps the most pertinent modern example of this is Google Glass, which is certainly a push in this direction – it becomes more of a partner than an accessory per se.

“You’ve got a computer sitting on your head, looking at what you’re looking at, hearing what you’re hearing, seeing your gestures, and having access to the Internet and all the assets that are there,” says Cerf.

“So this thing is a facilitator, a partner, an enabler in your ecosystem,” he continues. “At some point it should be perfectly reasonable to be wearing Google Glass and be pointing at something, and say ‘What’s that?'”, or ‘Can you translate this menu, I don’t speak Bulgarian?’. The ability to have  a conversation with a computer, about what you’re trying to do as opposed to typing commands, is utterly beguiling. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting closer.”

Cerf on the future of libraries

Books in an archive

As with the newspaper industry, Google has had an immeasurable impact on how people access information. Indeed, most petty arguments are settled in seconds now thanks to smartphones and search engines.

When asked what he saw as the ‘future’ of libraries, he expressed deep concern about the way information will be stored and passed through generations. Books, if looked after, can be passed down through many generations – but the rate at which technology is evolving leads to some concerns about so-called bit-rot.

“You have no idea how eager I am to ensure that the notion of library does not disappear – it’s too important. But the thing is, it’s going to have to curate an extremely broad range of materials, and increasingly digital content,” says Cerf.

“I am really worried right now, about the possibility of saving ‘bits’ but losing their meaning and ending up with bit-rot,” he continues. “This means, you have  a bag of bits that you saved for a thousand years, but you don’t know what they mean, because the software that was needed to interpret them is no longer available, or it’s no longer executable, or you just don’t have a platform that will run it. This is a serious, serious problem and we have to solve that.”

Certainly at a more recent micro-level, think of all those floppy disks or Zip disks from school or college that are pretty much redundant now. Sure, they’re  not entirely inaccessible – but you have to go to great pains to obtain information from them. Now, amplify that scenario over tens, or hundreds of years and there is a real risk of losing a lot of information through the foggy ruins of time.

Perhaps a more near-term concern is one of the whole concept of what a library means. To you and me, it probably still means a bricks-and-mortar building filled with paper books. At a more abstract level, it’s really just a repository of information that can be accessed by anyone.

“We have to retain this notion of a place where information is accumulated and kept and curated and managed,” says Cerf.

“So for some people, who imagine ‘Well, it’s all digital, and all we have to do is run the Google index’, I don’t think that’s exactly right,” he says. “I think there’s a whole infrastructure that has to be not only created, but invented and sustained in order to make sure the knowledge that we’ve been digitizing is retained and reusable over a long period of time. Otherwise, we’ll have denied ourselves what is the most important potential I can think of – to have all the knowledge of human-kind at our fingertips.”

Image Credits

Feature Image – Getty Images | Image 1 – AFP/Getty | Image 2 – Thinkstock | Image 3 – Ole Spata/AFP/Getty Images | Image 4 – Thinkstock

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