Internet Pioneers Berners-Lee, Cerf, Strickling ask: “What Kind of Net Do You Want?”

by David Solomonoff

When the first message on the ARPANET (the predecessor of today’s Internet) was sent by UCLA programmer Charley Kline, on October 29, 1969, the message text was the word “login”; the letters “l” and the “o” were transmitted, then the system crashed.

Forty two years later, the Internet is everywhere and rapidly becoming embedded in every device. Kevin Kelly sees the Net as evolving into a single “planetary computer” with “all the many gadgets we possess” as “windows into its core.” The Internet Society’s slogan is “The Internet is for everyone,” but Vint Cerf (who co-developed the TCP/IP network protocol that connects everything on the Net today) now prefers “The Internet is for everything”.

The world-wide adoption of a decentralized network that connects everything creates continuous technical, social and policy challenges that no one could have foreseen in 1969. Even as we take the Net for granted, the way we do the air that we breathe, decisions are being made by policy-makers, technologists and end-users that shape its future.

The success of the Internet has had a great deal to do with the development of open standards – often by volunteers – in groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). Decisions in Working Groups (WG) of the IETF are reached by consensus on the group mailing list so that anyone active on that list can be part of the process.

The need to add capacity is a constant challenge. What balance of public and private funding, regulation or deregulation are appropriate, and which types of infrastructure (centralized vs. decentralized; fiber, cable, wireless) warrant investment are subject to ongoing debate.

The Net has provided a platform for incredible innovation and economic growth. How to reward innovation and creativity while encouraging the widest dissemination of new content and technologies? How to encourage disruptive technologies while mitigating their potentially negative impacts?

Does there have to be a conflict between freedom and privacy on one hand and security on the other? How can users safely share personal information using social media which rely on the sale of their personal data as a business model? What legal and technical protections are necessary for businesses to securely move into the cloud?

Internet users have continuously influenced key technology innovations and policy decisions. But keeping them in the decision-making loop as they increasingly take the Net for granted presents an ongoing challenge.

On June 14, Internet pioneers Vint Cerf, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, and Lawrence E. Strickling, Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information, and Administrator, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), will address these questions as keynote speakers for the INET Conference in New York City, sponsored by the Internet Society and the Internet Society of New York. [Disclaimer: As President of the Internet Society of New York I will deliver opening remarks.]

There will also be panels featuring industry leaders, members of civil society organizations, open source software advocates and government officials. The conference is open to the public although advance registration is required. It will also be streamed live.

Just as a democracy is never the rule of the people, but rather the people who participate in the process, the Internet has evolved through the efforts of technologists and activists – many who have volunteered their time to develop open standards, open source software and to advocate for an open Internet. It’s your call: What kind of Internet do you want?

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Mideast protesters reject repressive regimes; remain tethered to tech they can’t control

by David Solomonoff

Protesters fed up with political repression, corruption and poverty (particularly recent food price inflation)  toppled the government of Tunisia. They threaten to do the same in other countries throughout the Mideast as pundits hail the “Twitter and Facebook revolution”. But repressive governments have as much compunction about shutting down communication services as they do about torturing dissidents.

Egypt has cut all Internet access and most mobile phone service as huge protests threaten to topple that government. For a while the ISP Noor remained online – largely because it connects the country’s Stock Exchange and many offices of foreign companies to the outside world. Noor has now been cut off as well.

Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have some of the largest percentages of the population online in Africa. Egypt’s Communications Minister, Tarek Kamel, was secretary and co-founder of the global Internet Society’s Egyptian Chapter (which is no longer active). He is still listed as a member of the Board of Trustees on the Internet Society’s website. The Internet Society has strongly denounced the Internet shutdown.

Kamel is widely recognized as the person who brought the Internet to Egypt. He has publicly supported the open development of the Internet. His bio on the Internet Society’s website states that in the early years of the development of the Internet in Egypt, “Kamel’s work extended into liberalization issues such as a tax reduction for ISPs as well as a government/private sector partnership to serve the Egyptian Internet community. He has actively participated in the establishment of community centers in remote areas to bring the Internet to the have-nots.” His role in the shutdown is unknown, although he wasn’t among the cabinet members removed in the shakeup of the Egyptian government in the wake of the protests.

Cutting off most communication with the outside world for an extended period would be economic suicide for any modern, developed country, but temporary interruption – long enough to kill or imprison a large number of protesters without too much visibility for squeamish foreign allies – is viable for a poor country ruled by an elite supported by gifts of military technology from wealthier countries.

The protesters vulnerability is relying on highly centralized communication networks and services while fighting an overly centralized political system. The younger ones probably don’t have any memory of being without mobile phones and the Internet and may have taken them for granted.

To succeed in the face of violent repression and the shutdown of Internet and phone service, they must quickly develop low-tech strategies that are as fast and flexible as the ones that have been lost.

Another approach is to build communication services that cannot be intercepted or shut down. Human rights activists and hackers are already starting to do it with combination of low-cost commodity hardware and free open source software:

  • Landlines still work in Egypt and a French ISP FDN offers free dialup Internet to Egyptians. Instructions to connect to foreign ISP’s via dialup with a mobile phone are also being circulated for those who can use them.
  • For Egyptians who are still able to use their mobile phones, there is Sukey, “a security-conscious news, communications and logistics support service principally for use by demonstrators during demonstrations.”
  • Tech entrepreneur Shervin Pishevar put a call out on Twitter for volunteers to help construct self-configuring unblockable mobile ad hoc networks to prevent government caused blackouts during future protests worldwide
  • We Rebuild, a Europe-based group working for free speech and an open Internet is developing non-Internet modes of communication, including amateur, shortwave and pirate radio as well as a fax gateway, to assist protesters and humanitarian relief efforts. Information on these efforts can be found on their Telecomix news site.
  • Remaining Internet activity is certainly being monitored. The Tor network of anonymous, encrypted proxies has seen a huge increase in Egyptian traffic.

Efforts like these could be the tipping point for the uprisings. In 1989 Czech student protesters received a gift of then state of the art 2400 baud modems from a mysterious man who may have been from the covert-operations wing of the Japanese embassy. Modems were illegal but most Czech police didn’t even know what they were. The students set up BBS systems to coordinate actions throughout the country and successfully overthrew the Soviet communist backed dictatorship.

If you think the problems people in Egypt have could never happen here, you might want to think again. In the U.S. the “Internet kill switch” bill in Congress would allow interruption of Internet services in a “national cyberemergency.” Senator Joe Lieberman, who introduced the bill in the Senate, has described the Internet as a “dangerous place” and promised the bill would protect against  “cyber terrorists”.

Some of our current political leaders, hanging on every word of their consultants and pollsters, and terrified of harsh criticism, might consider hostile online commentary more of an “emergency” than something trivial like say, a collision with an asteroid.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “No man is entitled to the blessings of freedom unless he be vigilant in its preservation.” Today that vigilance means learning to build and modify the technology that we use rather than being passive consumers of it.

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