Vint Cerf: Keeping the Internet Healthy

Success is said to have a thousand fathers, and many people share credit for bringing the Internet into existence. Even so, the title “Father of the Internet” fits Vinton G. “Vint” Cerf better than most; he and Robert Kahn designed the TCP/IP protocols that govern data transfer across the Net, along with the Internet’s basic architecture. The two men were awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2005.

Cerf, who holds a Ph.D. in computer science, worked for many years at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, where the Internet was incubated. Starting in the early 1980s, he held senior positions at MCI and the Corporation for National Research Initiatives. He’s now vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, where he looks for “new enabling technologies and applications on the Internet and other platforms.”

A doting parent to the Net, Cerf has served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, founding president and board member of the Internet Society, and visiting scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His list of professional associations and fellowships is almost as long as his list of awards, commendations and honorary degrees. He spoke about the future of the Internet, technology policy and competitiveness with senior writer Edward Cone. This is an edited version of their conversation.

CIO Insight: You’ve mentioned the importance of a national technology policy, but you favor a distributed approach.

Vint Cerf: I worry about the idea of trying to centralize everything. The Washington tactic is, when there’s a problem, you appoint a czar, and the czar is responsible. It’s like the War on Drugs, or the War on Poverty. But it never quite works; you don’t get very good solutions.

That’s because the economy is highly distributed, and our entire governmental structure is highly distributed, so what you’re looking for is to infuse our very distributed environment with certain postures and principles that will influence people’s decisions, whether it’s a company CEO or a policy maker somewhere in the governmental structure, whether it’s local or state or national.

Drawing on the technical community at different levels of government is what I’m looking for here. We have lost a great deal of that input over the course of the last eight years. I’d like to see the reconstitution of bodies providing technical input to policy makers. That is really valuable, and not just at the national level, but at the state level, and maybe even at the local level, when you’re talking about infrastructure development, broadband access to Internet, things of that kind, you want some locally sensible decision-making that’s driven in part by technology and economics.

If you want to draw attention to the importance of technology in policy making at the national level, perhaps you do need to have a cabinet-level person. I would compare it to the evangelist position I have at Google. I don’t make decisions: I don’t believe it’s appropriate, but I can lobby like crazy in every venue where people will listen. It’s encouraging people to draw on valuable and distributed resources of information that strikes me as the most important outcome.

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