François Flückiger: I did most of my career at CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, the biggest physics laboratory in the world, where we try and understand what the matter is made of, what the vacuum is made of, where the universe comes from. And to do that, we need we need technology and we need networking, because we work with thousands of physicists around the world. This is why we need it, networking and connection.
In ’83, I was given the job to develop and improve the CERN external networking. At that time, we had a couple of leased line connections, one to France, the other one to the UK. And eight years later, CERN had become the largest Internet hub in Europe, gathering on the order of 80% of the total bandwidth for Internet installed in Europe. And this was my job, to develop that from these two minuscule links two the largest European hub for Internet in Europe by ’91, ’92.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Flückiger: There were several moments which were particularly epic, I would say. Some of our physicists were working in faraway countries such as China. And I remember a memorable trip in Beijing to set up the very first connection between the national physics institute in China and CERN, a long line crossing China, Mongolia, and the rest—the USSR at that time, and the rest of Europe. So, there were some connections which were not easy to do, and we were pioneering, often making the first connection between one given country and and Europe and CERN.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Flückiger: I think that the current situation with the Internet is a mix of hopes and fears. The main fear I have, and I believe most of my colleagues have, is to see the Internet more fragmented than it is, and much more fragmented than we wanted it to be. When we designed it, we developed technology which was due to be open, which means that everyone knows the technology, everyone can develop it, and everyone can improve it as well.
And the positive point of that is still that for some of what we call—for part of the architecture, all the mechanisms which allow a piece of information to go from one place to the other one, they still use open technologies, what we call TCP/IP technologies. It has been challenged sometimes by companies which wanted to develop parallel proprietary technologies. It failed. Everyone knew that still the same technology which is often, known to everyone, this is a positive aspect.
On the other hand, at other levels, what we call the application level—what you use—sometimes it’s still okay. Mail, for example. If I send you a mail, if I receive a mail from you, this will use a technology which is open to everyone. But all the applications will start to be fragmented, and mainly proprietary technologies are used. Which means that you can only talk and communicate with your camp. And if you want to communicate with someone else, you need to use a different technology. And the two camps will not communicate. Think of the way in which you do video conferencing, for example. It’s one camp, or another one, or a third one. And you need to speak all languages, and not a common language. There is Esperanto language. You need to talk all languages and to be part of all the communities if you want to communicate with various parts of those communities. This is to me one of the main threats.
The other one, the one that everyone talks about, is the indirect threat—and it is through no fault of the Internet, it is through the fault of our governments, the threat on the privacy—our privacy, your privacy, the privacy of our information. The fact that if I call you this can be recorded. And if you call me this could be recorded well. Your messages and whatever web site you navigate to. So, this is through no fault of the Internet, but this is a fact that this is a powerful tool which allows for attacking privacy. This is a threat.
Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Flückiger: Some of the actions to help maintaining the openness is to maintain in those organizations which develop the technology, essentially the IETF, the initial spirit of openness and the initial spirit of trying as far as possible to resist the industrial pressures. It is natural, it is just normal that a company tries to lobby the evolution of the technology for their interest. This is what the company is for. But above that, there is the interest of the society at large. So, maintaining in structures like the IETF, which developed the technology, this open spirit where we try and minimize those influences to keep developing technology which is for the benefit of all and not for the benefit of one particular company is essential, and this is what I believe will maintain a full openness in the future.
Intertitle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Flückiger: I remember October ’88, there was a second meeting of a complicated committe called CCIRN, Coordinating Committee for Intercontinental Research Networking. It was held in West Virginia. And there was a few Europeans. I was representing CERN, my organization, with a few of us. And at the end of the meeting, which was focused on how to deploy the Internet, our American colleagues, led by Vint Cerf, told us, “Look, guys from Europe, if you are interested in the Internet, you should try and set up a structure to allocate the IP addresses yourself. Because we keep doing that for you. So if you are serious with the Internet, try and do that in Europe.”
I returned to CERN in Geneva, and two months later I called a meeting. And there was a handful of people, but very motivated people, who answered. Six people in total. Rob Blockzijl and Daniel Karrenberg from Amsterdam, Mats Brunel from Sweden, Enzo Valente from Italy, Olivier Martin and myself from CERN. We gathered in a small barrack at CERN on a rainy day and then we decided that we needed to set up the structure. In the middle of the afternoon, in the middle of the meeting, Daniel Karrenberg proposed a name for that structure. He called it RIPE. It was a French acronym: Réseaux IP Européens. And this is a structure which till now allocates IP addresses in Europe and part of the world as well. So, it’s a small anecdote that tells what a handful of people motivated and willing to do things can achieve.
Six months after this meeting, Rob Blockzijl organized the first forum for RIPE in Amsterdam, and a couple of months later Daniel Karrenberg created the RIPE Network Coordinating Center, which is still doing the job of allocating resources for Internet in Europe and part of the world.
I believe that if talking about one of the main threats, which is the fact that the Internet has become a sort of vehicle for governments, or means for governments violating privacy of citizens and individuals, all means to denounce and to fight that are good. So this can be done via collective actions, and a handful of people can gather together to hack together—you are stronger if you act together. But not forgetting that sometimes, very influential individuals making their voice alone, and their voice not being diluted in a group may have also a strong effect. So I believe that the most influential people, the most well-known people in the Internet are welcome to denounce and to make their voice against the lack of privacy and the risks that the governments now are making, as well as groups, individuals, can gather together—and also through organizations. The Internet Society, ISOC, is one of those big group vehicles that can channel those messages. There is privacy. There is freedom. And this too must be respected as well, even though everyone understands the need to protect society and maybe some compromises need to be done here and there, but at least that we know what is being done with our data and in particular with our private data.
François Flückiger profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013