Vint Cerf: 'Privacy's an accident of the urban revolution'

The godfather of the internet is still reaching into the future - but he seems unworried by concerns of the present.

by Emma Haslett

Sir Tim Berners-Lee may be widely credited with inventing the internet, but actually, he didn’t. Berners-Lee invented the system of hyperlinks between pages that created the world wide web. It was pioneer Vint Cerf who, with his colleagues at Stanford in the 1970s, invented TCP/IP, the communications protocol used by ARPAnet, a forebear of the internet and the network the web is now modelled on.

So it’s Cerf who is the real godfather of the internet. And that makes him a serious geek celebrity.

Perched on a sofa in a hospitality box at the O2 during Campus Party, the Telefonica-sponsored event bringing together developers and entrepreneurs from all over Europe, he’s a very believable celeb.

Defying geek convention in his customary three-piece suit, complete with mustard-coloured tie and matching pocket square, the only hint of his computer nerd background is the full beard. It’s very neat, though. Think Steve Wozniak visiting his grandmother.

Now in his 70th year, Cerf shows no signs of slowing down. He’s moved to London (‘I’m living in Holland Park. It’s a little expensive’) for six months, on undisclosed business. Chances are it's something to do with Google, though: he's been working as its chief internet evangelist since 2005. That job title may be hard to interpret, but you can be sure Cerf is one of the company’s top people: earlier this month, he is reported to have represented the company among a group of technology firms including Apple and AT&T in secret talks with Barack Obama on NSA tech surveillance.

Among his other projects are making sure the Internet gets its 340 trillion trillion trillionth user - and the small matter of interplanetary communications.

First, though, I ask him what his impressions of London are.

‘It’s a great environment for startups,’ he says. ‘In the UK they have access to capital, and vibrant stock markets so they can do an IPO when they need significantly to grow.

‘They need to have access to well-educated people, and I think we have a university system here in the UK that is producing not just technologists, but business people, economists, MBAs and so on, all of which you need.

‘You’ve got a lot of ingredients here - you can make a Silicon Valley-like effect.’

But like many Americans who do business in the UK, Cerf believes a crucial shift in attitudes is needed before it becomes a natural habitat for entrepreneurs.

‘It is very important that you accept the possibility of failure. This is a European problem. In Silicon Valley, failure is a mark of experience. In Europe, it is a mark of Cain on your forehead. We need to change that… we need to encourage the business environment that some failure is to be expected.’

He's talking from experience: failure is something his employer, Google, has had its fair share of - in some cases, very publically. And with a job title like ‘evangelist’, you’d expect Cerf to be defensive about the company, particularly criticisms of its latest innovation. The company is on the brink of launching the Google Glass, its first piece of ‘wearable tech’ and the device which - given how silly it looks - will sort the geeks from the boys.

Glass has been lambasted because of its camera: there’s no way of telling whether wearers are filming or not. Although Google has already banned some apps for the Glass, privacy groups still aren't happy. But Cerf says the point with the camera is not what it can see, but how it can use that information.

Cerf at Stanford in the 1970s

‘It’s about putting the device in your environment,’ he explains.

He uses a metaphor in which a blind German speaker needs to converse with a deaf English speaker. The Glass, he says, could take words from the German speaker and translate them into English Sign Language for the deaf person, and vice versa.

‘That’s very exciting,’ he says.

But there’s an indication Cerf, like his employer, doesn’t fully understand concerns over innovation at any cost.

‘If you’ve ever lived in a small town, the notion of privacy doesn’t exist. I lived in a little town in Germany for six months, with 3,000 people in it. The postmaster knew everything that was going on. This was 1962 - no one had a phone but the post office, So… the postmaster made the call for you, he knew who was writing to whom, he knew everything…. There really wasn’t that much privacy at all.’

‘Privacy is something which has emerged out of the urban boom coming from the industrial revolution. So I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be interested in privacy, but I am suggesting to you that it’s an accident, in some respect, of the urban revolution.’

That won’t be much consolation to those who had their wifi passwords stolen by Google’s Streetview cars, for which the company was fined $7m in March this year. Or, indeed, those who object to Google’s collusion in the US government’s Prism surveillance programme.

Nevertheless, Cerf has his sights fixed further afield. One of his major concerns is increasing the number of IP addresses available. The Internet of Things has hugely increased the number of IP addresses needed. In the next few years, he says, most household objects - fridges, cookers, even lightbulbs - will have an IP address.

Their original configuration, IPv4, was in 32 bits, which allowed for 4.3 billion IP addresses.

‘In the 70s when we were creating it, we thought that would be enough,’ says Cerf.
Alas, those ran out in February 2011 - but the new configuration, IPv6, is 128-bit, allowing for 340 trillion trillion trillion addresses.

‘That should last until after I’m dead,’ says Cerf. ‘After that, someone else can worry about it.’

Trouble is, Internet Service Providers aren’t implementing IPv6 fast enough, and Cerf wants people power to change that.

‘I’d appreciate it if you could write to your ISPs and ask what is their plan for IPv6 and when will they make it available,’ he says.

It’s an old-fashioned approach for someone so concerned with the future. Particularly given his other major project - researching how interplanetary communications can be made possible - won’t be implemented for decades, even centuries. (The answer is building a network of receivers the size of the solar system. This is not a man who thinks small).

With that, he is off to give his speech to 1,000 or so enraptured fans. In his suit and grey beard, he’s an ancient relic among the jeans-and-blazers uniform of today’s developers, but his subject matter - interplanetary communications and policing the internet - shows Cerf is still the one leading the pack. The geek’s geek shows no signs of slowing down.

- Vint Cerf was speaking at Campus Party Europe - an ambitious week-long technology festival staged by Telefonica at The O2, London.  The unique, 24 hour a day event aims to excite thousands of young people across Europe about the possibilities of new and emerging technologies.

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