A National CTO?

The Obama campaign has talked about naming a national chief technology officer.

Cerf: If there were such a position, whether a CIO position or a CTO, as the Obama campaign refers to it, having that position in the cabinet leads to the question, What does that party actually do? Does that party have a budget? Will the organization formed under this position have authority for certain things and, if so, what will they be?

The worst thing is to have a position where all you can do is say "no," because if you say "yes," you can't afford to pay for anything. That's a source of frustration for a number of people in the private sector who serve as chief technology officers: If they don't have budget and staff, it's very hard to make something happen.

Your advocacy for network neutrality carries some weight, given your role in Internet history. What's your thinking on the issue?

Cerf: This is more complicated than it looks. The debate was boiled down to bumper stickers for a while, which was not helpful in terms of understanding what the issues are.

Openness to new applications, openness to devices that are compatible--those things are important to us. At Google, we take the view that the providers of Internet access should not take advantage of their access position to interfere with people offering competitive applications to the applications provided by the underlying transport and access provider. We don't think that's a good thing from the consumer point of view, and certainly not from the innovative point of view.

On the other hand, the opponents of this position argue that the Net neutrality people were saying that every bit has to be treated identically, and that you couldn't charge more for more capacity and so on, and that's not the case. I accept the idea that you do have to manage your network and there may be more demand than there is capacity. What you have to do at that point is somehow share the available capacity in a fair way. It might be that somebody has purchased higher capacity to the Net than you have, and that person should have more access to the Net than you do, even in congested conditions, but on a pro rata basis.

Should the network access providers have the responsibility and the ability to defend against denial of service attacks or other problems? Absolutely. What about low-delay stuff, low-latency things like voice? There's no disagreement that you could treat some things differently. That would work for things like file transfers or e-mail. This is a fairness issue. It doesn't mean you can't manage your network; it means you have to do it in a fair way.

You've sounded the alarm on another problem: the inaccessibility of data stored in outmoded formats, which is known as "bit rot."

Cerf: Bit rot is a stunningly big problem. It's very real for any company that plans to have any longevity. We're only seeing the beginning elements of it, and we're being inundated with new information. Over time, we will need increasing access to that older information. I'm already experiencing problems, like TIFF images that aren't interpretable, JPEGs that aren't interpretable as I move from one software base to another, and e-mail that isn't readable or has attachments that have gotten lost. Things like that are quite frustrating and critically troublesome.

We need to step back and think about how to combat this tendency to lose information. I suspect that there are some tough intellectual property issues built into this problem. What happens if a piece of software is no longer being supported; do we still have access to it? Under what ground rules and what conditions?

Is it required that it be made available as source code? Do you have to provide it online, in the cloud somehow, so that people have access to the functionality? I don't think there are any rules right now. I suspect that we need to ask what we should do in order to ensure that information that's important to us is accessible.

The historians, of course, are beside themselves because more and more information about our society is in online form. We start to lose track of what people did, and what actually happened, because we can't see it anymore, can't read it. Even though the bits are there, we don't know how to interpret them.

If there were a chief technology officer in the new administration, that would be one of the areas where I'd encourage serious consideration, because it has the potential to be very damaging.

This article was originally published on 09-25-2008
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