Yesterday I got offered an opportunity to interview Vint Cerf just before he gave his talk entitled Tracking the Internet into the 21st Century (link is to video of the talk) at Google's Kirkland offices. I got to ask the questions I blogged about yesterday and also learned about some of Vint Cerf's interests in Nigeria. Below are the questions I asked and his paraphrased answers to my questions.

Yesterday I got offered an opportunity to interview Vint Cerf just before he gave his talk entitled Tracking the Internet into the 21st Century (link is to video of the talk) at Google's Kirkland offices. I got to ask the questions I blogged about yesterday and also learned about some of Vint Cerf's interests in Nigeria. Below are the questions I asked and his paraphrased answers to my questions.

Q: Why did he decide to leave MCI, a company steeped in networking technology, to join Google, an advertising and search engine company, as Chief Internet Evangelist

A: The job title was not his doing. Larry, Sergey and Eric told him they wanted him to continue his efforts in encouraging the growth of the Internet around the world and thought the title "Chief Internet Evangelist" best fit this position. There are 6.5 billion people on the planet today yet there are only 1 billion people on the Internet. Google would like to see the other 5 billion people on the Internet because the more people there are using the Internet, the better it is for Google. This is why the company needed a "Chief Internet Evangelist".

Vint Cerf spends a significant portion of his time encouraging implementations of the Internet. He travels all over the world meeting with senior government officials (presidents, ministers of information, etc) to recommend Internet friendly policies, discourage the rise of monopolistic or closed networks and encourage domestic/foreign investments in fledgling markets where Internet usage hasn't taken off. For example, he is working with some charitable entities to donate solar powered Internet cafes to businesses in Nigeria to encourage the usage of the Internet in remote or underprivileged parts of the country.

One aspect of the Internet's growth which he didn't pay much attention to at first but does now is Internet enabled mobile phones. It is estimated that there will be 3 billion people with mobile phones by the end of the year. That is 3 billion people who could all be connected to the Internet, if Internet connectivity became ubiqitous on mobile devices within a few years.

Looking back at the past few years, it is clear that adding more users to the Internet increases the quantity and diversity of information on the Web. This trend has been hastened by the rise of the consumer as producer. We now have people who would be traditionally considered to be consumers producing content on blogs, video sharing sites like YouTube, and creating social networks on sites like Orkut and Facebook. Another interesting trend is the rise of virtual worlds like World of Warcraft and Second Life. In these worlds users are creating interesting economic and sociological experiments with fascinating consequences (e.g. gold farming in China). In fact, some college professors are encouraging their students to join these sites to test out economic and sociological theories in ways that simply weren't feasible in the past. An interesting idea would be to see if we could create virtual objects which were associated with and could influence objects in the real world. For example, a virtual university where the electron microscopes and telescope actually displayed image data from electron microscopes and telescopes in the real world. Maybe as an optimization we could cache large amounts of the astronomical data so multiple instances of the virtual telescope could be used at once but only rarely would the physical telescope have to be used so there wasn't resource contention. Given that Google already has already started partnering with NASA to store and process large amounts of astronomical data this may be something that the company could be interested in trying out in the future.

Q: He has spoken out on Google's behalf in favor of net neutrality. However there seem to be many different definitions of Net Neutrality, some of which imply that having different tiers for Quality of Service is OK and some of which don't, which definition is Google in favor of and why?

A: Google didn't start the network neutrality debate, AT&T's CEO Ed Whitacre did when he claimed that companies like Google are getting a "free ride" on his network. This seems backwards to Vint Cerf since AT&T's customers pay broadband fees so they can access any site on the Internet. Expecting companies to pay AT&T's for access to its paying customers who are already paying for access to the Internet is old school "Telephone Think" that harkens back to the monopoly days of Ma Bell.

The philosophy of the Internet comes from a completely different roots. The philosophy was pretty much "Here are the specs, if you can figure out how to implement our protocols and can connect to our network then it's all good". This open philosophy is what enabled the growth of the Internet and eventually led to commercial entities [including telcos like AT&T] to become part of the network.

Vint Cerf and Google's definition of network neutrality has these five basic pillars

  1. users should be able to reach any service connected to the network
  2. users should be able to run any application and connect to the network (of course, this doesn't apply to applications that violate the law)
  3. it is OK to charge for higher speed connections to the network.
  4. operators should not discriminate against services a user is trying to access by varying the user's QoS or access charges when accessing that service.
  5. Discrimination against a type of service (e.g. all video traffic has different QoS) is OK but singling out specific sites is not.

A number of ISPs already break these rules yet are not upfront with users that they are not getting a full Internet experience. Some claim that these rules limit the ability of ISPs to prevent denial of service attacks, fight spam and perform other activities that protect their networks. Google believes that such protections can still be enforced but should be done at the application layer and not by discriminating against packets. As for ISPs that believe this limits their ability to provide value added services [such as video sharing] the response is that competition should be based on providing innovative services instead of by artificially limiting the capabilities of your competitors because you control the network pipes.

Google wants the Internet to be an open environment which allows for innovation. They believe this is important to the Internet's growth.

Q: Google just pledged to spending up to $4.6 billion to license the 700MHz wireless spectrum in what the company has described as the most significant auction of wireless spectrum in history by the U.S. federal government. Why is this auction so significant and what kind of services can we expect from Google if it wins the auction?

A: [Editor's Note: Why this auction is significant is summarized quite well in David Stone's post Vint Cerf and the 700MHz Spectrum]
Google's primary goal is to increase the openness of Internet-connected networks around the world. This is why they've committed at least $4.6 billion to licensing the 700MHz wireless spectrum.

It isn't quite clear what business model Google will use the 700MHz spectrum for if they win the auction. Whatever they end up deciding, it will honor the four principles of open platforms they have espoused with regards to wireless networks. It is quite likely that leasing out this capacity is one of the business models Google will try out. However due to the propagation characteristics of the 700MHz band, it is likely that different business models will have to apply in rural versus urban environments.

Q: Net neutrality gets a lot of press, however there are other issues facing the Internet as well. What keeps him up at night besides net neutrality? Botnets? Government censorship of the Internet? Concerns that we’ll never upgrade from the current version of the Internet since it is already so entrenched around the world?

A: The rise of botnets, domain name security and the problems related to handling internationalized domain names (IDNs) are at the top of the list of problems facing the Internet that concern Vint Cerf. The IDN problem is particularly pernicious because not only did we have to figure out how to support non-ASCII characters in a system that was never designed to support them but once a way was found, the IDN homograph attack was born which promptly reverse most of the gains.

Switching to IPv6 is also an issue facing the Internet that we will have to deal with sooner than most people expect. Some have predicted that at the current rate of allocation by ICAAN we will run out of IPv4 addresses by 2011. At that point, it will start to look a lot more attractive to switch to IPv6. There may be workarounds such as people leasing some of the blocks they've been allocated to other parties but this leads to interesting problems for routers since the routing tables will be screwed up and will have to be tampered with to adjust to these shenanigans. Given that pretty much all the major operating systems (Vista, Mac OS X, *nix, etc) and networking equipment manufacturers (e.g. Juniper, Cisco) support IPv6, it's really up to the ISPs and they likely won't make any moves without customer demand. Unfortunately for them, things are liably to get ugly in the next five years or so and they may have to change their minds.