Event ReportsPublished on May 01, 2015
The future of the internet is by no means simple, and that the deeper the analysis became, the more complicated it would be, according to Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google.
Multistakeholder policy making very important: Google official

The future of internet innovation requires the freedom to fail, according to Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. Mr Cerf was speaking at a roundtable on "The Future of the Internet", organised by the Observer Research Foundation on January 5.

Mr Cerf began by saying that the future of the internet was by no means simple, and that the deeper the analysis became, the more complicated it would be. He noted that the internet is a valuable enabling force, which connects people to information and to each other. People have become accustomed to the convenience of having instant access to information, through their phones or computers - especially in developed economies.

Moderating the discussion, ORF Vice President Samir Saran highlighted the internet governance issues currently being debated in India. He drew attention to the issue of whether the internet should be managed through a multistakeholder or multilateral process; the growing need to balance security and human freedom; the sovereignty and jurisdiction over data; and the ambitious plan to connect every Indian to the internet.

The enabling aspect of the internet also allows for the creation and development of information technology businesses and jobs. India has done well to provide IT services to other parts of the world, where internet penetration is higher than in India. The attempt to provide internet access to every Indian will yield experiences that can benefit other parts of the world which will soon be pursuing the same goal. In order for innovation to succeed, entrepreneurs need the freedom to fail - to take risks and try out ideas which they may not otherwise attempt. This strategy, of aiming as high as possible, has contributed greatly to Google’s success. Some cultures are much less accepting of failure than others, so it can be difficult for small businesses to recover from initial stumbles. It is interesting to note the success of Indian businessmen in Silicon Valley, where the atmosphere is more conducive to experimentation.

Mr Cerf highlighted the benefits of multistakeholder policy making, saying that it was important to have direct feedback from people who would be affected by proposed policies. This approach has been attempted on an international level, through bodies like the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), with varying degrees of success. ICANN’s duties are purely administrative, but it has become one of the most prominent internet governance bodies because there was a need for some kind of centralised system. The internet otherwise was purely a distributed system. The Internet Governance Forum (IGF) has been an important platform for discussions about governing the internet. Its lack of decision making powers has led some to feel it is not a useful forum, but the lack of pressure to come up with a final agreement means that the views expressed can be more candid, and neglected issues can be raised.

The discussion turned to the origins of the internet. The idea of networking computers was initially conceived as a budget-saving measure by the US Department of Defense, which was sponsoring computer science research at several universities. The open nature of the network was apparent at this stage. The dozen universities involved were using the same network and sharing resources and information, which meant they were cooperating and were able to make more progress than they might have had they been competing. The internet today is still evolving, still capable of changing and open to the creation of new functionalities. One example of this is the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), which has no formal membership, but is a place where ideas for internet standards can be developed. If the proposed standards are accepted, they are adopted. Another reason that the internet developed the way it did was because the technology wasn’t patented, so anyone could invest and build upon it.

Universally accepted standards are what keep the internet - made up of 500,000 independent networks - functional. Standards will only become more prominent as the industry around the Internet of Things (IoT) grows. Every day innovators are coming up with new, previously un-thought of applications for the internet, emphasising the nature of the net as a place for experimentation and providing ample reasons to keep it open and not bound to business interests. As these new applications are being created, there is an assumption that everything in the future will be connected to the internet; it is this theory that is allowing the IoT to flourish.

As the internet becomes bigger and more inclusive, it is more likely to include malicious elements. It would be dishonest not to admit that there are people using the internet who don’t have everyone’s best interests at heart. National security and individual safety are thus important concerns. It could be that a ’cyber fire department’ is needed for small businesses and the like, who don’t have the capability to protect themselves from malware and cyber attacks. Educating users from an early stage about how to safely use the internet is critical. The internet will never be perfect or absolutely safe, so users need to be aware of the risks involved. This is particularly true as the IoT brings the internet in contact with other everyday devices which could cause serious harm if compromised.

The internet has also changed education models, notably with the introduction of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). They are changing the way education is delivered - in smaller segments, to larger numbers of people - and its business model. This method of distance learning could have great potential in India if internet connectivity becomes widespread.

During the question and answer session, the concept of the internet as an enabler was further expanded and applied to the Indian context and the Digital India programme. Participants raised the subject of local-language content, and how developing accessible and relatable content is an integral part of connectivity. Another hurdle in India is overcoming illiteracy; creative methods from voice input to symbol use could be employed as solutions.

So where is the internet going? The final trends highlighted by Mr Cerf were that the internet is moving off the planet - a network between Earth, Mars and the International Space Station is currently operational - and getting increasingly faster, with no signs of slowing down.

(This report is prepared by Anahita Mathai, Junior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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