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Google's chief internet evangelist seems nervous about Trump's tech policy

Rob Pegoraro
Contributing Editor

AUSTIN—South By Southwest’s most overdressed speaker, like many others, came to talk shop about the internet. But Vint Cerf was better positioned than anybody else here for bandwidth banter: He co-wrote the internet’s core TCP/IP standard.

The chief internet evangelist for Google (GOOG, GOOGL) made his first SXSW appearance as he does others: nattily attired in a three-piece suit. Cerf’s onstage interview by Susan Hassler, editor of the trade publication IEEE Spectrum (its publisher sponsored the session) touched on the internet’s future, its past, and some present and pressing issues we need to resolve.

Research funding, net neutrality and other worries

Ajit Pai, chairman of the FCC

Cerf didn’t mention President Donald Trump by name (he was among the tech leaders who signed an anti-Trump manifesto last July), but he seemed as anxious over Trump’s tech policy as many other SXSW speakers.

In particular, Cerf warned against cuts in federal funding for “curiosity research,” long-term projects with an uncertain payoff. He advised against hoping that the private sector can step in, saying even Google hesitates at that level.

Cerf saw another threat to “permissionless innovation” in the Federal Communications Commission’s steps to undo net-neutrality rules that ban internet providers from blocking or slowing sites or charging them for priority delivery.

“We need to have a legal framework to enforce the net neutrality rules, and right now the only framework we have is Title II,” he said, referring to the legal clause giving the FCC authority to regulate “common carriers” like phone companies that provide open access to their customers.

Trump’s newly named FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants to drop that approach, although he says he wants to maintain an open internet anyway. Cerf voiced cautious support for a bill from Sen. John Thune (R.-S.D.) that would provide a different framework for open-internet rules.

Government isn’t the only problem

Cerf also worries about moves by internet firms to fence their content inside apps, what he and others call a “walled garden” approach. “We don’t want walls, what we want is roads,” he said.

Companies also jeopardize the security of the internet when they rush to ship “Internet of Things” devices that connect to the internet but don’t implement proper security safeguards.

The people on the internet can also constitute a risk when they abuse or harass others.

“We haven’t figured out how to deal with this fact that other people have this ability to document our lives besides us,” he said.

He voiced skepticism that technology can solve what is “a sociological problem in large measure.” For instance, encryption can help us confirm that people are who they say they are and keep our communications with them private, but it does nothing to deter bad behavior.

Instead, he placed his hope in the force of persuasion: “I’m hoping that we will see some social maturity coming up that will make the internet a safer place.” Well, don’t we all…

People centered

The theme of the talk was “an internet by and for the people,” but Cerf went into surprisingly little detail about his work on the People Centered Internet project. The initiative he launched with Oracle (ORCL) pioneer Mei Lin Fung aims to extend internet access into the developing world while also making connectivity relevant with content that helps people in those places.  

“It isn’t enough to build the infrastructure, you also have to make sure it’s useful,” Cerf said. “We need people to be able to take advantage of their access to this technology.”

He cited a Tunisian internet-access project called Tawasol (after the Arabic word for “connectivity”), which relied heavily on local volunteers. “None of these projects work if you parachute in, lay out something and leave,” he emphasized.

He noted another possible obstacle to expanding the internet’s reach: governments that would rather preserve their control over information.

Founder stories

No appearance by Cerf is complete without testimony about how he and Robert Kahn came to write TCP/IP—short for “Transmission Control Protocol/internet Protocol”—the system that allows packets of data to zip around the world by varying routes to all wind up at the right computer.

He traced his interest in networking to an introduction to computers at in high school in southern California. “There was this little cadre of nascent internauts at Van Nuys High,” he said. “We all met again at UCLA.”

That’s where they encountered the Defense Department’s ARPANET project that, in turn, led to him and Kahn figuring out how to make a computer network work across not just fixed facilities but mobile locations.

By May of 1974, they had published their first paper, and six months later they had begun using the term “internet.”

That gave the world the technology you’re using to read this. And it left Cerf with a disadvantage relative to any student or professor starting out today: “I didn’t get to use the internet until I was 28, and I had to invent it first.”

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Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.