Vint Cerf: The government is going overboard in Internet copyright control

“When Bob and I started writing the specs for the Internet in 1973…”

Only a handful of people can start a sentence anything like that.

Today, Vint Cerf, one of the godfathers of the Internet, stood on a stage at the Google campus and addressed attendees of Atmosphere, the company’s cloud computing event.

With his snow-white beard and three-piece suit, Cerf looked like something out of a Jules Verne novel, subtly different from the Brooks Brothers army he faced.

And he spoke as one who still sees a world of freedom, innovation and possibility in the Internet.

Today, Cerf gave the audience strong words on contemporary issues of intellectual property, open-source development and the need for better security — not on the part of developers or companies, but on the part of normal Internet users.


Cerf on patents versus freedom


When asked what he would tell the developer of the Next Big Thing, the technology that could replace the Internet, Cerf said, “Shoot the patent lawyer.”

The room, which was full of chief information officers for large, proprietary companies, burst into both laughter and applause.

Cerf continued, “Bob [Kahn] and I knew we could not succeed if we tried to protect the Internet’s design. As it turns out that worked out really well, and I think that’s still pretty good advice.”

Cerf also spoke out against the Department of Homeland Security’s recent seizures of websites, such as last year’s seizure of scores of music sites and communities for copyright violations, which he called “a blunt instrument that can and should be exercised much more carefully.”

As the one site owner told this correspondent at the time, the sites were being seized “without any previous complaint or notice from any court… While I was contacting GoDaddy I noticed the DNS had changed. Godaddy had no idea what was going on and until now they do not understand the situation, and they say it was totally from ICANN [via the Department of Homeland Security].”

Cerf said this was a step out of line, even in the name of IP protection. “Even our own government is beginning to go overboard in the protection of copyright…

“The open ability to develop new applications and try them out has been vital to the Internet’s growth and to the space in which we currently operate. It has interesting ways of enhancing both sides of the equation.”

He told the audience, “Remember, governance is a big word that includes human rights, freedom of speech, economic transactions on a worldwide basis — it touches everything. It’s everywhere, and that’s why Internet governance is topic A in many corners.”


Cerf on identity & security


Cerf also talked about a topic quite close to Google’s heart: the ability to traverse the Internet anonymously, if one so chooses. Google’s own suite of social tools, Google+, recently came under heavy fire for allowing its users to sign up only with their “given names,” linking their online activities with their real-world identities.

However, this decision has been reversed, due in no small part to the backlash from hackers inside Google’s own campus — including Cerf.

“We should preserve our ability to be anonymous or pseudonymous,” he said today, “but we also need strong authentication tools.” While certificates, Cerf said, are “not working too well,” users still and will always need secure ways to prove who they really are.

“We have serious work to do as a community to implement new technologies and… improve security on the Net.”

One of the main points Cerf made about security wasn’t about the need for better programmatic ways of thwarting attacks; rather, he said, consumers themselves need to get smarter about where their information goes when they click and browse around the web.

“I am comfortable that we have some good technologies for basic cryptography,” he said. “What worries me are all the other avenues that people can get information without having to break code.”

He said a recent episode of spear phishing attacks on Gmail users “is a case in point… People clicked on those messages because they look credible.”

Cerf continued, “I’m much more worried about these open avenues for attack [including social and email attacks and malware from browsers], the social engineering, the tricking… we’re going to have to teach our children and each other much more about… the risk factors of doing certain things on the Net.”


Cerf on mobile


“When we bring technologies into being, we assume that the new technology will wipe out the old one,” said Cerf. He noted this assumption is incorrect; rather than destroying old systems, new technologies often enhance them, he said.

For example, Cerf noted, “The newspaper is in decline. News is not and should not be in decline… This is Darwin’s observation: Adapt or die. We have to figure out how our business models can operate under new conditions.”

When it comes to mobile devices and mobile ways of connecting to the Internet, Cerf said, “The immediacy of the mobile changes it from what we’re accustomed to in the personal computing world to something that’s instantaneous…What’s interesting and powerful about the mobile environment is that it’s connected to services on the Internet. This augments both platforms.”

And since mobile is still so new, Cerf said that ecosystem is more ripe for creative hacking than almost any other. “For systems in which you already have a lot of hardware and software, change is difficult,” he said.

“That’s why apps are so popular.” He continued to say that the infrastructure of mobile devices, operating systems and applications allow for more flexibility and innovation, because there aren’t too many legacy layers underneath.


Cerf on the Internet of things


Keeping in mind that he spoke at a cloud conference, Cerf said, “The cloud won’t do you any good unless you can connect to it. The stats have to include the reliability of the network connections that get you to the cloud… We have to keep the infrastructure in mind.”

Part of that infrastructure are the devices we use to connect to what we call “the cloud.” In addition to the evolving world of mobile devices and connectivity, Cerf also talked about other connected devices, a new way of thinking about what the Internet is and how it’s used: The Internet of things.

“I used to tell jokes about Internet-enabled lightbulbs,” he said. “I can’t tell jokes about it anymore — there already IS an Internet-connected lightbulb.”

But, Cerf said, “I also have an Internet-connected sensor system in my house.” Cerf’s home automation system controls such factors as light and temperature. While he said it sounds like a deeply nerdy indulgence, he told the Atmosphere audience, “The reason I’m doing it is very practical. I want to have data on how the heating ventilation and air conditioning system is performing.

“Many of you are CIOs of your businesses: Real data counts, and data drives the business.”

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