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The following interview of Vint Cerf, Founder and former Chairman of the Board of the Internet Society, took place during the World Telecom Internet Days at World Telecom. It followed a long, fascinating discussion involving Vint, Andy Sunberg, Robin Postel and myself as we prepared the day's sessions.

The future of the Internet

What is it that makes the Internet different?

It bears a lot of similarity to the media that have come before, but it also allows us to do things we couldn't before. It is a mass medium. It is possible to publish print material on the Net. It is possible to distribute video or audio through the Net. It has a lot of the characteristics of the postal service because of e-mail. It has characteristics of the telephony service because you can have point to point communications between individuals and it could be a telephone service as well as a messaging service. But what is different about the Internet is that in addition to its individual communications capability, or its point to multi-point distribution capability, it also allows dialogue to be established among people in a group. We can't do that very well with the telephone. We can set up telephone bridges, but you have to tell individuals how to get onto the bridge. In the Internet world distribution lists are very common they have been around for more than 27 years. Generally you don't know who is on the distribution list or you don't know who is looking at your Web pages. Yet you are still able to get your message to these groups of people who have some interests in common with you. Moreover, having established this commonality of interest, then the dialogue can proceed either in the group or on a one-to-one basis. It is this group communication that makes it so different. The fact that it is two-way is also important. The other mass media have tended to be one-way with restricted access to the "transmitter". Not everyone has a radio station. Not everyone has a television station. Not everyone has a newspaper. Yet when you put things up on a Web page you are potentially communicating with anyone on the Net. Those are some of the aspects of the media that make it notably different from earlier ones.

How do you see the Internet developing over the next ten years?

I see it increasing in its total capacity and penetration. Today we think there are maybe 200 million people using the Net, which is a pretty small number compared to the world's population. I'm not sure how quickly we will reach the billion mark in terms of users, but it could be somewhere between 2004 and 2006. I also estimate that there will be about a billion devices on the Net by 2006 - 2007. A lot of these devices will be appliances rather than conventional PCs and laptops. You will see many appliances like the European GSM appliances with built-in Web capability. There will also be increasing innovation in terms of applications that are being supported. It is amazing how many business ideas have been explored on the Net. Some of the don't work and, of course, they disappear quickly. Others appear to be very successful. E-Bay being an interesting example of a new application that is apparently successful.

As the Internet takes up an every increasing place in our lives and yet does not respect geo-political boundaries, that raises the question of Internet governance. How do you perceive the running of the Internet?

Up till now, the Internet has tended to operate as a confederation. Anyone who is part of the Internet environment takes on some responsibility for operating a piece of the Internet. There are hundreds of thousands of networks, each of which are connected together, that make the Internet run. It is enlightened self-interest that has kept this all functioning. All of us who are Internet service providers recognise that connectivity to every other component is important. It is not an Internet if it is not connected.

Second, there is a great deal of appreciation for standards because without them, the system doesn't work, Thirdly, there is an understanding that you need some administrative functions to make sure that Internet names do not get assigned duplicatively or that domain names are unique. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was set up specially to assure that those two uniqueness properties be maintained. Apart from that, everything else is a federated activity and there doesn't need to be a central authority.

As the Internet becomes more commonplace, interest is shifting from the Internet as a technology to its use and its impact on society. You might like to say a few words about the Internet Society's initiative in setting up the Internet Societal Task Force (ISTF).

There is an increasing appreciation for how much impact the Internet can have in social and economic terms on the world. And although we are only beginning to see that impact, by extension, on the assumption that the Network continues to penetrate very quickly, these impacts could be pretty significant. The Internet Societal Task Force (ISTF) was set up to consider several problems, one of which is how to make the Internet accessible to everyone. Although we'd like it to be so - the Internet Society's motto is "The Internet is for everyone" - achieving that goal requires a considerable amount of effort. There are places in the world where the Internet is not accessible, or it is too expensive or has very little capacity or it lacks the other necessary infrastructure. For example, you need to have people who are capable of maintaining pieces of Internet in order to keep it running. The ISTF is looking at what those various barriers are. Some are technical, some are financial, some maybe regulatory in nature. That's an area of great concern. Making the Internet accessible to everyone may require that governments change their regulatory policies to allow competition. Monopolies tend to move slowly when it comes to innovation. Having a liberal and competitive environment allows new ideas to enter the system. It also allows private capital to flow in. This need not come from government resources at all. That is a good thing because the private sector makes the investment in the continued growth of the Internet. I am convinced that as long as the barrier of entry into the Internet business is low, there will be lots and lots of entrepreneurial experiments taking place to try out new ideas on the Network.

How does one finance an initiative like that underlying the ISTF?

Let's come back to the question of the appreciation of social and economic effects. We now understand that some of the policy challenges that the Internet places before us are as important to understand and resolve as the technological challenges. It is clear that solving some of the social questions like the "haves" and "have nots", the digital divide, the ability to make the Internet affordable and literally accessible to all sectors of the population whether they are disabled, economically disadvantaged or insufficiently educated. All these characteristics impede the spread of the Internet require solutions which are very expensive. Setting up the ISTF itself need not be expensive, solving some of the problems it uncovers could be expensive. The only solution is to take advantage of enlightened self-interest and greed. It is in governments' enlightened self-interest to help promote the spread of the Internet because the population will benefit from the readily accessible information and from the possible use of the Internet as an educational tool. There is ample motivation to resolve some of these problems. Some of the costs will be supported by government, but a significant fraction of them will be covered by industry, which is interested in getting the product in the hands of the general public.

Does the fact that organisations like the Internet Society have to take such an initiative imply that governments are not fulfilling their role?

It is an interesting perspective that the ISTF seems to be taking up a challenge which governments ought to take up. Not every government has come so quickly to a realisation of the importance of the Internet to their citizens. Governments are starting to understand that telecommunications capability is important from the economic point of view and maybe even from the point of view of the welfare of the citizens. Access to information is terribly important. The ability to communicate with parties around the world is very important particularly if you are trying to cope with international businesses. Making this system work on a global scale requires a certain amount of government attention to make sure that national laws are not incompatible with other people's national laws. For example, we don't have agreements on the significance of a digital signature. We don't know what requirements are to be imposed for identification before certificates get issued. We don't know where the jurisdiction is with respect to taxation of Internet transactions. And although we may struggle against the idea of Internet taxes, I have the feeling that it is inescapable. If a significant fraction of the economy is run on the Internet, governments are going to insist that they have access to those transactions for the purpose of generating revenue.

You mentioned you had a solution about taxation?

It is a not terribly well-baked idea for the moment, but my conclusion is that there aren't any trivial solutions to the problem of taxation. Geography doesn't help us very much. Therefor whatever solutions we use to assign tax liability to a business or to individuals is likely to be arbitrary. We should just accept that and decide that we are going to invent compatible, inter-workable, albeit arbitrary decisions about who pays the tax on which transactions. As long as we are consistent on a global basis with those choices then I think we can actually achieve a reasonable framework. The answers have to be non-geopolitical in character.

One final word. If you are interested in where the Internet is going, it is useful to spend some time talking to kids in the 11 to 20 year-old range because they are the ones for whom the Net is a normal, everyday occurrence. They didn't live through its creation. They just know it is there and they use it. It is the medium through which these young people interact with each other. Talking to them about what they do, what they anticipate, what they might want, would be very helpful and more accurate than asking some of the older members of the internet population where they think the Internet is headed.

Vint Cerf, Founder and former Chairman of the Board of the Internet Society
Interview, Alan McCluskey

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Created: Octoner 19th, 1999 - Last up-dated: October 19th, 1999