Every time you send an e-mail, surf the Web, or buy a product online, you are using the Net that Vint built.
Well, not all by himself, as he is the first to point out. Like most technologies of significance, the Internet flowed from the minds and work of many people. “There are countless others,” he says, “who have spent their entire careers working to take the Internet where no network has gone before.” But without the innovations of Vint Cerf, the whole idea of a global mesh of computers and people exchanging messages, pictures, and software could have gotten stuck on hold indefinitely.
The Internet works because of a method of sending information called packet-switching. Although he did not invent packet-switching, Cerf, along with Robert Kahn, formulated the packet-switching recipes that have become a worldwide standard. These protocols, known collectively as tcp/ip, are the common denominator that unifies the global Internet. The Net that we have come to know-including the World Wide Web in all its graphical and interactive glory-rests on this remarkably robust foundation of tcp/ip.
Cerf is much in demand as a speaker, playing the incongruous role of the Internet guru in a spiffy three-piece suit. He has a day job, too, as senior vice president of Internet architecture and engineering of MCI Communications. There, he oversees the development of network technologies and keeps a sharp eye on the progress of the technology he helped create. This is Cerf’s second stint at MCI. During the 1980s, he helped create MCI Mail, a service that helped popularize the concept of electronic mail.
Because of his hectic travel schedule, Cerf prefers that interviews be conducted through e-mail. Technology Review Senior Editor Herb Brody held up TR’s end of the computer-mediated conversation.
TR: You are generally credited as being one of the “fathers” of the Internet. How do you feel about your child’s success?
CERF: I’ve been more than pleasantly surprised over what’s happened. I never anticipated that the experimental Internet would get larger than 128 networks-and we’re long since past that now.
TR: What do you see posing the most serious threat to the Internet?
CERF: I’m most concerned about heavy-handed intervention to attempt to regulate the Net. Although the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act, some members of Congress are trying to revive similar legislation-a development we all should be concerned about. I’ve often traveled to Capitol Hill to brief Congress on the industry, and I’m struck at just how misinformed some members are concerning the Internet. Thankfully this is changing, although not as fast as I would like.
TR: In a sense the issue seems to be who should run the Internet.
CERF: Yes, and that has come to a head most recently in the debate over the administration of domain names. More than 100 companies have endorsed a new domain naming system developed by industry organizations. But the proposal was not universally accepted, and the White House undertook to develop an alternative that it hopes will gather broader support. These two proposals have similar objectives but differ in important ways. My sense is that each has positive elements and significant commonalities that should be used to form a foundation for a broad consensus on the whole issue. The critical next step is to move from talking (and flaming, for that matter), which has occupied us over the past year. We’re running out of time, and both sides need to be ready to compromise for the greater good.