When Edward J. Snowden, the disaffected National Security Agency contract employee, purloined tens of thousands of classified documents from computers around the world, his actions — and their still-reverberating consequences — heightened international pressure to control the network that has increasingly become the world’s stage. At issue is the technical principle that is the basis for the Internet, its "any-to-any" connectivity. That capability has defined the technology ever since Vinton Cerf and Robert Kahn sequestered themselves in the conference room of a Palo Alto, Calif., hotel in 1973, with the task of interconnecting computer networks for an elite group of scientists, engineers and military personnel.
The two men wound up developing a simple and universal set of rules for exchanging digital information — the conventions of the modern Internet. Despite many technological changes, their work prevails.
But while the Internet’s global capability to connect anyone with anything has affected every nook and cranny of modern life — with politics, education, espionage, war, civil liberties, entertainment, sex, science, finance and manufacturing all transformed — its growth increasingly presents paradoxes.
It was, for example, the Internet’s global reach that made classified documents available to Snowden — and made it so easy for him to distribute them to news organizations.
Yet the Internet also made possible widespread surveillance, a practice that alarmed Snowden and triggered his plan to steal and publicly release the information.
With the Snowden affair starkly highlighting the issues, the new year is likely to see renewed calls to change the way the Internet is governed. In particular, governments that do not favor the free flow of information, especially if it’s through a system designed by Americans, would like to see the Internet regulated in a way that would "Balkanize" it by preventing access to certain websites.
The debate right now involves two international organizations, usually known by their acronyms, with different views: ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and ITU, or International Telecommunication Union.
ICANN, a nonprofit that oversees the Internet’s basic functions, like the assignment of names to websites, was established in 1998 by the U.S. government to create an international forum for "governing" the Internet. The United States continues to favor this group.
The ITU, created in 1865 as the International Telegraph Convention, is the U.N. telecommunications regulatory agency. Nations like Brazil, China and Russia have been pressing the United States to switch governance of the Internet to this organization. Cerf, 70, and Kahn, 75, have taken slightly different positions on the matter. Cerf, who was chairman of ICANN from 2000-07, has become known as an informal "Internet ambassador" and a strong proponent of an Internet that remains independent of state control. He has been one of the major supporters of the idea of "network neutrality" — the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications, regardless of the source.
Kahn has made a determined effort to stay out of the network neutrality debate. Nevertheless, he has been more willing to work with ITU, particularly in attempting to build support for a system, known as Digital Object Architecture, for tracking and authenticating all content distributed through the Internet.
Both men agreed to sit down, in separate interviews, to talk about their views on the Internet’s future. The interviews were edited and condensed.
THE INTERNET AMBASSADOR
After serving as a program manager at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Vinton Cerf joined MCI Communications Corp., an early commercial Internet company that was purchased by Verizon in 2006, to lead the development of electronic mail systems for the Internet. In 2005, he became a vice president and "Internet evangelist" for Google. Last year he became president of the Association for Computing Machinery, a leading international educational and scientific computing society.
QUESTION: Edward Snowden’s actions have raised a new storm of controversy about the role of the Internet. Is it a significant new challenge to an open and global Internet?
ANSWER: The answer is no, I don’t think so. There are some similar analogues in history. The French historically copied every telex or every telegram that you sent, and they shared it with businesses in order to remain competitive. And when that finally became apparent, it didn’t shut down the telegraph system.
The Snowden revelations will increase interest in end-to-end cryptography for encrypting information both in transit and at rest. For many of us, including me, who believe that is an important capacity to have, this little crisis may be the trigger that induces people to spend time and energy learning how to use it.
Q: You’ve drawn the analogy to a road or highway system. That brings to mind the idea of requiring a driver’s license to use the Internet, which raises questions about responsibility and anonymity.
A: I still believe that anonymity is an important capacity, that people should have the ability to speak anonymously. It’s argued that people will be encouraged to say untrue things, harmful things, especially if they believe they are anonymous.
There is a tension there, because in some environments the only way you will be able to behave safely is to have some anonymity.
The other side of this coin is that I believe that strong authentication is necessary. We must support the entire spectrum here. In some cases you want whistle-blowing kinds of capacity that will protect anonymity. Some governments will not tolerate anonymity, and in our government it’s still an open question.
Q: Can the Internet be governed effectively?
A: I’m deliberately arguing that new institutions are not necessary.
Q: How significant is the danger that the Internet will be Balkanized, as critics of the ITU fear?
A: Balkanization is too simple of a concept. There is an odd mix of permeability and impermeability in the Net. You won’t be able to communicate with everyone, and not every application will be accessible to everyone. We will be forced to lose the basic and simple notion that everyone should be able to communicate with everyone else.
I’m disappointed that the idyllic and utopian model of everyone being able to communicate with everyone else and do what they want to do will be – what is the right word? Inhibited is the wrong word, because it sounds too widespread – maybe variable is the best way of saying it. End-to-end connectivity will vary depending on location.
Q: How has your original design weathered the test of time?
A: Everything has expanded by a factor of a million since we turned it on in 1973. The number of machines on the network, the speeds of the network, the kind of memory capacity that’s available, it’s all 10 to the sixth.
I would say that there aren’t too many systems that have been designed that can handle a millionfold scaling without completely collapsing. But that doesn’t mean that it will continue to work that way.
Q: Is the ITU and its effort to take over governance a threat to an open Internet?
A: People complained about my nasty comment. I said that these dinosaurs don’t know that they’re dead yet, because it takes so long for the signal to traverse their long necks to get to their pea-sized brains. Some people were insulted by that. I was pleased. It’s not at all clear to me that ITU’s standards-making activities have kept up with need. The consequence of this is that they are less and less relevant.
Q: Beyond the mobile Internet and the Internet of things, what else do you see on the horizon?
A: There are a couple of things. One of them is related to measurement and monitoring. It gives us the ability to see trends and to see things that we might not see if we under-sample. That, plus being able to see large aggregates of what we hope is sufficiently anonymized information, can help us reveal states that we might not otherwise see.
It is like being able to figure out flu trends. I think of it as a kind of sociological or a socioeconomic CT scan that is helping us to see the dynamics in the world in a way that we couldn’t otherwise see. And of course it leads to all kinds of worries about privacy and the like.
An official with DARPA from 1972 to 1985, Robert Kahn created the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, based in Reston, Va., in 1986. There he has focused on managing and distributing all of the world’s digital content – as a nonproprietary Google. He has cooperated with the ITU on the development of new network standards.
Q: The Snowden affair raises a paradox. The Internet made it relatively easy for him to do what he did, and at the same time it enabled the dramatic increase in surveillance that alarmed him. How do you sort that out?
A: I would push back on that a little bit. You could say oxygen made it possible for him to do that, because without it he wouldn’t be alive. Or his parents made it possible for him to do that.
Q: Does the scandal imply anything about the future of the Internet more generally?
A: You can’t gaze in the crystal ball and see the future. What the Internet is going to be in the future is what society makes it. It will be what the businesses offer, it will be new products and services. It’s the new ideas that show up that nobody thought of before.
Q: And looking further down the road?
A: If you ask me what it’s going to look like in 100 years, I’m sure there are going to be some things that are similar. That is, everyone will say we know we need connectivity between computational devices. We all know that access to information is important, so what’s different? It is just the same as it was back then.
You can say the same thing about transportation. What’s new about transportation? Well, people still need to get from here to there, and sometimes it’s not safe. You can get there faster, but that’s just a parameter that’s changed.
Q: Has the Snowden scandal changed the dynamics surrounding privacy and surveillance? How will it affect the debate?
A: There have always been ways in which people can access things, so instead of being able to log in because he had a key to this file, or this password or this firewall, he had a key to a physical room or a key to a safe.
Thievery of this sort is not new. The question is, did it change the scale of it. Probably. If it had been actually physical stuff, someone would have said, "What are you doing with these trailer trunks walking out the door?"
Q: Is there a solution to challenges of privacy and security?
A: In the 1990s when I was on the National Internet Infrastructure Advisory Committee, Al Gore showed up as vice president, and he made an impassioned pitch for Clipper chip (an early government surveillance system). He said, "We need to be very aware of the needs of national security and law enforcement." Even though the private sector was arguing for tight encryption, the federal government needed (to be able to conduct surveillance). It never went, and it’s not anywhere today. I think it’s probably easier to solve the Israeli-Palestinian problem than it is to solve this.
Q: Can the Internet be governed? What about the disputes between the different standards-setting bodies over control of the network?
A: No matter what you do, any country in the world is going to have the ability to set its own rules internally. Any country in the world can pull the plug. It’s not a question of technical issues, it’s not a question of right or wrong, it’s not a question of whether global Internet governance is right or wrong. It’s just with us.
I used to do the ICANN (management) function myself with one 3-by-5 card in my pocket, and when I got two of them, I asked Jon Postel if he would take over. You have to put it in perspective. Now it’s a huge business, and it gets caught up in a few things.
Q: Would it be possible to start over and build a new Internet to solve the problems the current Internet faces?
A: You can’t do a wholesale replacement. If you think there is too much spam today, tell me what your solution is for it, because if you design a clean slate Internet and you don’t have a solution for spam, you’re going to have spam on your clean slate Internet and you’re going to have an argument for yet another clean slate Internet because that one didn’t work. It’s like saying we have crime in society, so let’s blow up the planet and build a new one. There will probably be crime on the new planet.