Dave Farber: I first became familiar with some of the technology when I was at Bell Laboratories in the late 50s and early 60s and had read some of the documents that Paul Baran had written talking about packet switching. And then when I left Bell Laboratories to go to the RAND Corporation, I actually worked with Paul and continued to be interested in it.
I then went down to the University of California at Irvine as an academic and actually got involved with it in two ways. One, students were interested, and I was interested, and a good friend of mine from many years ago, Bob Kahn, was working at DARPA and was leading that project. So by the time it was done I ended up with a small research project looking at how to secure certain aspects of the ARPANET. And one of the relay machines, the IMPs there, my students there included a student from University of California at Los Angeles, was Jon Postel. So he was my graduate student. We were working on a thesis on network reliability and network performance. But that got me introductions to other students, Steve Crocker, Vint Cerf, etc.
So I started getting more and more involved. Also at Irvine, we were creating probably the world’s first real operational distributed system. And we were using a fairly novel local network called a token ring and developing many of the techniques that are now being used in the cloud services. So that’s actually what I’m getting my funny little award for, among other things.
A number of my students down there like Paul Mockapetris went on into these things. So in some sense my academic children became some of the fathers of the Internet. It’s why some people mumble that I’m the grandfather of the Internet.
Oh, that’s fine. Being a father’s a pain in the neck. Being a grandfather’s great. Believe me, I’ve done it.
After staying in LA for awhile, I went to the University of Delaware (go back east where I was from originally), and again got involved in some of the early network stuff with students. Some of them, Dave Sincoskie and others went on to do significant work in that area.
But what I did along with some of my colleagues around the country is we noticed that— This was during the post-Sputnik era, and suddenly technology was everything. And there were little computer science departments in almost every university around the world. And especially around the United States. And all of them were small. And we realized that that wasn’t going to work for long because they had nobody to talk to. So we proposed—actually three of us—proposed to the National Science Foundation that they fund an experiment in creating a network using basically Internet technology but also using telephones—whatever we could get our hands on—to allow universities’ computer science departments to talk to each other through email.
And we got money to do that, created the server environments we needed. We were using first ARPANET technology, but we also established interconnects between the CSNET and the ARPANET, which had some of the big schools on it. And we also extended it to industrial research laboratories. So pretty soon we had a web of largely computer science people who were counting on that.
We then wrote a couple of papers for Science and made some proposals and extended it to universities as a whole—everybody in the university—and went on from there. It grew almost out of control at that point. So I was PI in almost all those activities. I chaired the National Science Foundation advisory board on networking. Once you get in that mess, you stay in that mess. So that’s how I got into it, largely.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Some of the breakthrough moments were the establishment early on of an intertie between the ARPANET (the military experiments; they were on military networks) and the CSNET. That involved basically making an agreement with the government to allow us to pass traffic back and forth and establish the notions of peering relationships that are now standard. So that was done.
Looking at another one, we established an acceptable use policy, which I lived to regret but I wrote the first one. And that said what could run on that net, what could it be used for. And rather than making a very constricted one, we tried to make it as liberal as possible. And that meant a lot of people could use it. They didn’t have to only do computer science. That was one.
Also the establishment of interconnect agreements with foreign… We were Johnny Appleseeds. We’d walk around with a tape to Japan, we find some bright graduate student there and he’d bring up that software. And then we had an agreement with them that we could intertie with them. And so those mechanisms which we propagated to almost every country in the world I think were the beginning of the idea that the Internet (well, it wasn’t the Internet at that point), that the net was a global phenomenon. Not subject to censorship, not subject to paying for it. You provide your own facilities, we were there to accept your mail and deliver mail, and other things.
And that was one big thing. And then working within the NSF to privatize some of the networks. Because originally they were networks designed for research, academic things, and it was much more than that. And putting into place the mechanisms which allowed anybody to use it I think was a very key point. And then all the controlling the growth and everything. I think once you got to that point it was unstoppable.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
I think it’s stormy for a number of reasons. I think privacy, security, are major problems. And it’s going to create many a storm. You’ve seen some of them over the last month or two with the Snowden thing. But that’s a small plot.
Governments have caught on to the fact that the Internet is powerful. It’s uncontrollable. Governments don’t tend to like to have things that are uncontrollable. So just the attempts of government to regulate, to control the Internet, in an environment where it’s almost impossible to do that. A friend of mine put it nicely, he said the Internet routes around censorship. You know, it’s very difficult to control it. And that’s going to cause a lot of stress. Countries, and you see that with Europe, are trying to say, “Ah! We now have an excuse to say we want to forbid US companies from operating here because we don’t trust them.” That type of balkanization I think could destroy the utility of the net.
The other things I think that are very dangerous is the fact that governments—and they’ve always been doing it—want to know everything about what you’re communicating with. And who you’re communicating with. And that I think is going to cause a lot of problems. Some of them will take a while to develop. But people are beginning not to trust, you know, and the Internet is all about trust.
Identity problems on the net are a big problem. There was that famous New Yorker cartoon that says, with the dog on a computer saying, “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Well, nobody knows who you are. And that creates additional problems.
So I’d call it stormy, in the sense that a lot of policies are being made now largely by people who don’t understand the net culture. Or the net technology. And they’re making some bad mistakes, and are going to run into real troubles with it.
The other thing is the net is not a reliable beast. It was never built to be stressed the way it’s been stressed.
We were trying to see if it could be done. It was a relatively small group of people. We trusted each other because we all knew each other. And so issues like security and robustness… Robustness was engineered in, but security you didn’t worry about. So you built a set of of rules, protocols, which largely ignored security because who’s going to—
Well, now it’s so huge that it resembles society as a whole, and you you have these endless penetrations. And it’s not an easy job to fix them. We’re sitting here at the IETF and trying for years to fix them. We could’ve maybe done it years ago when they were a thousand people on the net, ten thousand, but now they’re millions and millions and trying to do anything is difficult. Because it’s not just the network it’s the computers you use on it.
So…I’d call it stormy. And it’s going to a little stormier for a while.
The other thing that’s happening is that technology is changing very fast. And there are limitations in the network that’re going to mean that it’s going to have to be redesigned at some point in the future. And the redesign will be fun. But how to ever get it out into the field is not at all obvious.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
One of my hopes is that it becomes a very ubiquitous thing that people can trust, people can use with some assurance that it will not bite them back. (Best way to say.) When you use the telephone— We’re always able to wiretap a telephone. But there were a set of laws that made it difficult. And in fact wiretapping a telephone with technology we had, we could do it but there was no way to process it.
Now, courtesy of Google and many others, you can absorb all that, you can analyze it. And so you can find interesting things like you’re talking to him, and he talked to him, and he talked to a bad guy and therefore by definition you suddenly are a bad guy. No, that’s not a logical thing but it will happen. People will be punished for things that they do. And that’s dangerous.
My hope is that we can do something about that in the short term and it’s not just technology. It’s law. It’s convincing lawmakers who naturally don’t like that, that their economic health depends on a healthy, open Internet. And there are a lot of people around here working on that—ISOC works on it, and others. But when you go to Washington it’s not clear that they understand it. Or any other capital.
Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Depends on the country you’re in. Education. Education not only of the current leadership, but future leadership. That’s happening in most universities. Something happens, though, as people get older they maybe get conservative. But they forget what they did as kids, as college students. And suddenly they pass laws that they would not like if they were— But that’s the way to world works.
I think you have to educate. You have to educate how important the Internet has become in the world economy. If you suddenly could stop it, it wouldn’t just be inconvenient, it would be a catastrophe. A lot of things wouldn’t work. Lights would go off, everything would go “plooey.” And so it’s a beast the health of which I think is going to drive the world forward. Without it I think we will probably spiral now into a very bad economic depression, which is not healthy.
I think education of people is very very important. And education of people who will help determine that. For instance the university should have introductory courses in some of the social policy issues. The technology, they all know how somehow it works, maybe a little bit of that. But more the societal issues. How it’s used, what its constraints are. And that will help. But it’s going to be a rough time because it’s like the automobile. A lot of old businesses go out of business. And we have to make sure we replace them.
And we have to make sure that we don’t destroy things. Like we’re well on our way of making it almost impossible for whistleblowers to contact a reporter. We’ve removed the classic ways of doing it and the Internet has taken its place but people don’t like it so they try to somehow stop it by controlling the net.
Intertitle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
I think it’s very important to educate people of all levels, all disciplines, of the…let me call it the ethics of the net. What’s an unacceptable role of government and of private enterprise and what’s an acceptable role for citizens. And every country has a different— I don’t think we will ever get to a point where there’s a uniform thing. But within countries, we should be educating them what their rights are and what their obligations are. And we don’t.