“I’m the chief internet evangelist at Google, so I speak in parables,” Vint Cerf joked at last week’s South by South West (SXSW) conference. Cerf is often called one of “the fathers of the Internet” for co-inventing the TCP/IP protocol that underpins how computers connect and transmit data on the internet in the early 1970s.
“Imagine you live in a little town at the bottom of a giant hill. ‘One day you realise a boulder is about to roll down the hill,” Cerf related, in reference to the current malaise of fake news and malware. “You also know you’re not big enough to stop the boulder yourself. As you’re racing up the hill, you’re looking for a pebble of the right weight and size and [hoping to] find the right pebble and put it in the right place to divert the consequence of that you see.”
Cerf worked on the original version of what would be called the information superhighway when it was still a research project run by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and part of the team at Stanford University that connected the first two nodes on ARPANet. He was also involved in building the first commercial email system, called MCI Mail.
Asked about how to solve the problems of fake news, spam, child porn or malware attacks Cerf told the South By audience in Austin, Texas: “there’s an import life lesson: when you have kids don’t take too much credit when they do well, so you don’t get blamed when they screw up”.
He added: “The internet is essentially natural. It doesn’t know it’s being used. The fact that its neutral means you can abuse it”.
With concerns that the US regulations around so-called net neutrality – the idea that all data and internet traffic is equal – might be changed under the new administration, Cerf warned that it would be deeply problematic if broadband providers got to decided which forms of traffic got delivered or given preference.
Cerf’s concerns come as the founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, marked its 28th anniversary last week with timely warnings about the problems that beset the web. It is the internet’s biggest use, after email.
“We’ve lost control of our personal data,” said Berners-Lee, now head of the Web Foundation, which aims to preserve the web’s diversity and freedom. In exchange for social media services we’ve given away our data, but “we lose out on the benefits we could realise if we had direct control over this data, and chose when and with whom to share it.”
Like Cerf he warned “it’s too easy for misinformation to spread on the web” because sites which mine our data and make money from advertising “show us content they think we’ll click on – meaning that misinformation, or ‘fake news’, which is surprising, shocking, or designed to appeal to our biases can spread like wildfire”. Similarly, he warned, political advertising online needs greater transparency.
These warnings about how the internet and web have evolved are especially problematic when authoritative regimes can use such online information to control or repress people.
Both men pointed out last week that the internet now belongs to everyone. As Berners-Lee said: “I may have invented the web, but all of you have helped to create what it is today”.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail