Why the Internet works and how to break it

The Internet’s a little younger in the Philippines, turning 20 this year. That’s an age when you’re just about to settle into your career and start to get working on the big, defining moments

If the Internet was a person it would be beginning to feel its age this year as it gets into its 30s, with a mid-life crisis looming, having begun operation on 1 January 1983.

The Internet’s a little younger in the Philippines, turning 20 this year. That’s an age when you’re just about to settle into your career and start to get working on the big, defining moments. Wherever the Philippines stays true to the founding spirit of the Internet, in schools or small businesses, we can see the founding technical vision flourishing in ways we couldn’t have imagined in the 1970s.

Bob Kahn and I began work in 1973 on the design that became the Internet following the spectacular success of the ARPANET project, funded by the U.S. Defense Department, in which small computers sent “packets” of data across dedicated telephone circuits. It was a homogeneous network connecting very inhomogeneous computers: different operating systems, different word sizes, different computational capacities.

We started working on a design to allow up to 256 networks to be connected in such a way that the host computers would not need to know anything about the layout of this super-network. At the same time, every host computer would be able to talk to every other one despite their different operating systems and other differences. The network was not designed for any application in particular and this has allowed it to support applications which weren’t predicted in the early formulation of the Internet’s design.

We didn’t, for instance, anticipate the handheld smart phone although the handheld mobile was a reality in 1983 (the Motorola “brick”). We did anticipate an “Internet of Things” – more on that in a moment –  and personal computing. We even foresaw notebook computing, whereby a computer that isn’t powerful can perform tricky tasks by drawing on the Internet.

The system Bob and I designed, alongside collaborators from Europe and Asia who visited my Stanford lab in the mid-1970s, has since grown by factors of a million or more on all dimensions: many millions times more users, a million times more hosts, a million times more networks, all connected a million times faster.

But the numbers aren’t the only difference. The Internet era is different from the telephone era for at least two reasons: it allows groups to communicate, coordinate, collaborate and share information and it supports every medium of communication invented, all in one network. People can discover each other without knowing who they are and they can find groups with interests in common.

The Internet also allows families to reach their loved ones overseas in a way that preserves important ties across borders. The long-distance phone call hasn’t been replaced, but it has been augmented by chat apps, SMS, social networks and even Google Hangouts. It’s astonishing to think that a mother and daughter could video chat in Internet cafes in 2014 for less than the price of a long-distance phone call in 2004.

The Internet allows countries to boost their culture, economy and businesses on the same terms that richer countries have traditionally enjoyed. A video uploaded in the Philippines to YouTube instantly can reach an audience the size that formerly could only be reached by Hollywood studios willing to spend millions of dollars in distribution deals. The Philippines’ open-data movement initiated by the Department of Budget and Management has democratized information online and paved the way for collaboration among agencies and the private sector. And through Google’s Apps for EDU partnership 2 million University students and teachers have come online in just one year, experiencing the power of the web, in and out of their classrooms.

Of course, the Internet can be abused and people harmed from that abuse. Protection of personal information should be a high priority for all Internet application providers. We also need to educate people about what can happen when they share information on the Internet – once it is available to anyone, it is possible for someone to upload to other sites or to capture and store the information. Any country that gets the Internet soon finds out that some harm comes from people who are in other national jurisdictions. We will need to find ways to facilitate international cooperation to deal with such abuse.

But as we do figure out better ways to make cyberspace safe to use, we must preserve the very properties that have made it so successful: transparency and openness, participatory policy and technology development.

There is a risk that the benefits of this shared information environment, the permissionless innovation that drives the internet forward, will be lost. There are attempts to institutionalize processes that will give partial internet control to certain authorities, but there are also efforts to keep the internet relevant and open. Collaboration makes the Internet such an amazingly powerful platform.

Similarly, the Internet has thrived thanks to people that host other’s work for them so that teachers can focus on teaching, businesses can focus on selling and families can focus on connecting, without having to know how to run servers or program computers. The Philippines could make this easy by providing the same safe harbors to these hosts that are enjoyed in other countries. The innovation that the Internet’s design makes possible shouldn’t be limited to those with computer-science degrees. As the Philippines’ Internet expands, any Filipino should be able to contribute ideas, goods and services to it. And from what we’ve seen so far, the presence of better infrastructure can pave the way for opportunities that can be made available to all Filipinos on the internet, no matter whether they’re in Manila or Mumbai, Boston or Bohol. — Rappler.com

Image from Shutterstock

Vinton Cerf is an Internet pioneer recognized as one of the “fathers of the Internet.” He is currently Google’s Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist. This op-ed piece was written in celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Internet in the Philippines.

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