Vinton G. Cerf’s contributions to the early development of the Internet have granted him recognition as one of “the fathers of the internet”. Since 2005 Cerf has worked for Google as one of the Vice Presidents and Chief Internet Evangelist. In this role, he has become well known for his predictions on how technology will affect future society. These predictions include areas such as artificial intelligence, environmentalism or the transformation of the television industry and its delivery model.
In preparation of the Internet Governance Forum 2019 in Berlin, we asked Mr. Cerf a few questions about the further evolution of the Internet, combating harmful behaviour, and governance principles.
Freedom of speech, metrics and the future of the internet
“The first thing that we can see is that there are people out there who want to share misinformation and disinformation. They want to persuade people of things that aren’t true. And they are doing this for a variety of reasons, sometimes political and sometimes malicious.” According to the Google Evangelist, the defence against this predicament is not technical. Rather, it has to do with training people to think more critically in what they’re saying and hearing - a non-trivial kind of task.
However, Cerf also recognises a second, more mechanical issue surrounding popular social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube: “If you look at the metric which is being used to feedback success in social media, you find that the metrics are driving certain kinds of behaviour. In the case of Twitter, it is how many followers you have, in the case of YouTube it is how many views, and in the case of Facebook how many likes you have. So these metrics drive people to make extreme statements and to put up extreme videos all because they are trying to get attention. So we have a social problem that is associated with the use of these media and we have to learn both to educate people and maybe even to do something about filtering. Freedom of speech should not include the freedom to harm.”
When asked about the immediate future of the Internet, the Google evangelist highlighted the rapid increase in its global accessibility. Cerf firmly believes that while now half of the world has access to the Internet, this number will grow to about 80 per cent within the next five years. This development is accompanied by a steady rise of available bandwidths.
“The Internet of things is the consequence of having higher bandwidths on the net. That has both benefits and risks. On the benefit side, these smart devices will make our lives easier, they will do things for us in an automatic way so we don’t have to worry about them. On the other hand, to the extent that they have bugs in the software, they may behave badly, they may make mistakes, they make cause problems; or worse. If they are not adequately protected, those devices may be avenues for various kinds of attacks. I think we are seeing some pretty spectacular results. And the consequence of this is, that we may overestimate how powerful these technologies are. We may rely on them in ways that we shouldn’t.”
Better principles and mechanisms of governance needed
But how can users be protected from harmful facets of the Internet? For one thing, Vinton Cerf acknowledges the utility of tools for user safety: “We need to help people. We have to give them tools to protect themselves. For example, there is something called two factor authentication. It generates a cryptographic password. When I want to log onto my Google accounts, I use that because I am the only one who has the device. Someone else may manage to figure out my username and my password but they don’t have this physical device and that protects me.”
Furthermore, Cerf points out the necessity to address the hazards of online environments in education. “For the same reason that we teach young children when they are crossing the street to look both ways, we should be looking both ways before we log onto the Internet. We have to teach people why that is valuable and how to do it so they ask themselves: ‘Where did this information come from? Is there any corroborating evidence? Was there an incentive for putting this information into this system and what might they be trying to get me to do?’”
Mr. Cerf also believes that global regulatory measures can improve our interactions on the Internet. “At this point, we are seeing both the positive and the negatives sides of this online environment with the negative becoming much more visible and apparent. And that causes us to desire better governance principles and better governance mechanisms. And those need to be international in scope. The reason for this is that the harms that can occur can be originated in one jurisdiction and the victim can be in another. That means we are going to have to cooperate with each other in order to protect people from harm on the net.”