Vinton G. Cerf, with his snow-white beard and an amiable smile, has a gentle elderly grace that hides a gloriously hyperactive career.
Widely known as one of the founding fathers of the Internet, 69-year-old Cerf, currently chief Internet Evangelist at search giant Google, is a co-designer of the TCP-IP (transmission control protocol-Internet protocol), that forms the basic design glue that sticks computers worldwide in an open environment together to form the Internet.
The former Stanford University faculty member who was the founding president of the Internet Society is now busy guessing the future of the Internet while spreading Google's gospel of an open culture of sharing information.
On a visit to India to meet policy-makers, he spoke to Hindustan Times in a wide-ranging interview. Excerpts:
When you started with TCP (transmission control protocol), did you imagine this would be this big?
When electronic mail was invented in 1971, we even saw what is the social networking element. There was Yum Yum with restaurant reviews. At Xerox's Palo Alto centre they had personal computers that cost $50,000. They were living in a world that was 20 years into the future.
And I saw that We understood that with transmission and switching technologies coming along, we had to make it future-proof. In some sense we had a very clear understanding how powerful this can be. We did not know about mobiles coming on such a large scale, although we were doing mobile technology.
The open standards was very important. We were academics. This openness was driven by the academic desire to share information.
Google is having a tug-of-war with law enforcers on the privacy issue. On the one hand there is privacy, there is law enforcement, and there is the need for freedom. How do you tie these three?
We don’t sell any information. Some people have this idea that we (Google) take this information and sell it. What we sell is advertising.
When governments come to us and ask for information in every jurisdiction we ensure that proper procedures are followed before any information is given. The other thing is that on transparency side.
We report to everyone what governments are asking for. We also try to help people protect their privacy, through one-time passwords that is cryptographically generated. If they adopt this, people make it much more harder for anyone to invade their privacy.
How about China? You have compromised in China.
We had decided to self-censor based on what the Chinese administration wanted. It was not a very satisfactory arrangement. But two years ago there were significant attacks on our system that appeared to originate in China.
At that point we said: We are out of here. There is a Google.cn but if you click on it, it takes you to HongKong. We are not anymore self-censoring.
What are your views on India as a co-participant in the technological domain of the Internet?
I have been coming here since 1993. My first visit was to get the Ernet in operation. I met Sam Pitroda (advisor to PM) then and met him today as well.
There is no doubt in my mind that in the Indian population there is activity and intelligence. Some of the most successful businessmen in theUS are from here which makes me say once the infrastructure is in place here, you will see a potential for huge innovation.
I understand from Sam that there are programmes in place to fix that problem. There is going to be fibre going to every village. I don’t know how long it will take to get all that done. When it does, it will be like the ignition of a bonfire.
Do you think there is a case for reasonable restrictions on Internet content?
We have a policy in Google. We don’t permit hate speech. If it is reported to us. There is 72 hours of video uploaded into YouTube per minute. There is no way for us to evaluate it by human examination.
If it is reported to us and it meets our conditions, we will remove it. Same for copyright violations. But I don’t like the idea of governments imposing culture.
Because it is so easy to drift over from a practice like child pornography which we absolutely reject. The trouble is you can easily drift into political speeches and government-imposed censorship.
What do you think is the future of search? Where do you see it 5 years from now?
It would be much more semantic. Rather than just looking for strings that match web pages, it may be possible to formulate the search which is understood deeply by our system more than words so that even if none of the words you mean is used and they mean the same thing, you will be able to find things.
The second thing is the ability of the search system to understand what you are trying to do. You can only do that if you allow us to keep track of what you are looking at, with “history” turned on. It is very early stages.
It is not your favourite robot story from Asimov but it is the beginning of a having a computer participating in helping you solve a problem.