“We have a lot of work to do to clean up the ecology that we’ve created.”
In 1973, Cerf, a Stanford University assistant professor, and his colleague Bob Kahn, invented the standards that we can thank for keeping our devices connected to the internet.
The pair developed the Internet Protocol (IP) and Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) for the US military, which allowed communication between different kinds of software, hardware, operating systems and networks.
They were adamant they be agnostic, so that software developers, the likes of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, or Mark Zuckerberg, could build on top.
The internet launched in 1983. Five years later, Briton Tim Berners Lee created the world wide web while working at Cern.
Now, decades later, Cerf looks to the future of the internet, he can see how the network he designed without geographical borders may not always be the global standard, and we may be facing a “splinternet”, as coined by the Cato Institute.
Last year, China proposed the New Internet Protocol, a set of standards to replace the internet Cerf helped create. Unsurprisingly, he thinks little of it.
“It is a dog’s breakfast of ideas that do not fit together very well”. Not that the Chinese engineers care, he opines. “What they wanted to do was to get more control.”
But China has invested heavily in technology and is closing in on a billion users on the internet.
It is home to several hugely successful internet companies, like Alibaba and Baidu, which offer similar services to Amazon and Google. And for that, Cerf says, “you have got to give it to them”.
You hear people worrying about artificial intelligence and machine learning but I’m worried about autonomous software running on the Internet of Things [networks attached to smart devices] that have bugs.
They have also been successful in filtering, blocking and using social media as an incentive for good behaviour and now are selling that technology to countries which like that kind of control, he says. “So the pollution is already in the bananas.”
Cerf says he is worried that Britain plans to retain equipment from Huawei, the Chinese telecommunication giant, in its 5G networks, despite warnings from the US that it could be a threat to national security. “I have trouble believing that it doesn’t have any software in there that lets the Chinese government get access to anything,” he says.
Worse still, he adds, the routing systems used around the world are not adequately protected.
Despite his legacy as one of the “fathers of the internet”, Cerf could not be further from the stereotypical technocrats of Silicon Valley.
Always seen in a three-piece suit, the Connecticut-born engineer is gregarious, and partial to a joke. During a video call from his study, in front of a wall stacked with awards, he is interrupted by a ringing phone.
“Damn it, that is so annoying,” he says. He shouts something that sounds like Russian down the line for 30 seconds and places the phone down. “Well that took care of that,” he says, chuckling.
It might be this light-hearted nature that has led Cerf to become something of an internet personality, campaigning for topics close to his heart like internet security, net neutrality and the importance of backing up information that might one day be lost in virtual space, throughout his career.
Despite his protests, net neutrality was repealed by the US government in 2018. However, without Cerf, we may not have had access to the internet in the way we do now.
By the late 1980s, US government agencies had created numerous networks for electronic communication, which prohibited public use. Cerf was then working for MCI Mail, one of the first commercial email providers, and requested permission from the US government to experiment and see if he could connect MCI’s private emailing system to the internet, he told Wired in 2012.
He was given a year. When it proved successful, several other email providers lobbied for access to be opened up, and public email accounts caught on.
In 2005, Cerf took up a role as internet evangelist at Google and informed global policy development and “continued spread of the internet”, according to a company biography.
He has advocated for accessibility by design in Google’s services. In the 15 years since he joined the search engine, public perception of the company has taken a southerly turn and people’s opinions of Google have morphed from seeing it as a campus of super smart pioneers making the world a better place to a conglomerate advertising machine that is politically biased (against each political side, depending on who you are asking).
Cerf has some idea why the backlash against technology companies has been so strong.
In the beginning, applications on the internet were “brand new and shiny” and businesses were booming as a result of their search engine. But its neutral nature allowed abusive nature such as fake news, cyber bullying and other ills of social media to emerge.
He compares the industry to carmakers. “We didn’t have rules when cars showed up on the road, and we finally realised there had to be some or people run into each other.”
Google is facing a reckoning as governments, advertisers and consumers apply pressure for it to police its services to prevent harm and censor content, leaving its position as a neutral platform hanging in the balance.
Whether the internet underpinning it will remain free, and neutral, for the foreseeable is just as hard to predict.