George Sadowsky: I started working with networks really in 1986. I was the director of academic computing at Northwestern. Stayed there for four years and went to New York University and ran academic computing there for ten years. In 1991, I joined the Internet Society as a result of Vint Cerf announcing it at the National Net Conference. In ’92 I went to the INET ’91 conference in Kobe. And there were a group of Africans who had been brought there by Stefano Trumpy and Enzo Puliatti, two Italians, in order to teach Africans about the Internet. And I realized that this was a really important thing to do. I had worked previously in the UN for thirteen years doing technology transfer and I’d worked in about twenty countries in Africa. And it was important to get the Internet to these countries.
So I and a group of maybe fifteen volunteers started the Internet Society workshop for students from developing countries. And we in ’93, which is the first year we held it, we had 130-some people from almost seventy countries. We ran a five-day, six-day workshop at Stanford University. And by the time that series had ended in 2001 we had trained fifteen hundred people in network technology—how to connect your country to the Internet, how to set up routed networks, how to do content resource discovery on the net, and how to serve content, and how to manage national networks.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Sadowsky: Pretty clear from the beginning that the Internet was going to be a breakthrough technology. And I think it was just a matter of rough slogging all the way through, every year training more people, helping them to go back to their countries. Of course, most of them had email. And once you have email then you can communicate with everybody else and so the workshops didn’t stop when they left. They essentially set up their own information networks, traded information back and forth. And helped to bring the Internet to their countries.
Vint Cerf said that those workshops sped up the introduction of the Internet in these countries by two to three years. That was sort of a breakthrough observation on his part. I didn’t think it was doing that much good but I guess in the whole it was an impressive thing. And there were a lot of volunteers who helped. We spread the Internet culture. We realized that we were spreading not only the technology but the culture, and at that point the culture was largely defined by the academic and research environment, which was sharing of information, helping people, and non-competitive cooperative learning and teaching. And that was I think— I don’t know if that was a breakthrough or not but it was a very satisfying environment in which to work.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Sadowsky: Let’s talk about asking the right question.
Sadowsky: That’s a terrible question.
Interviewer: Is it.
Sadowsky: It is.
Interviewer: Please elaborate.
Sadowsky: Because it’s a… It assumes a one-dimension…unidimensionality to the progress of the Internet. And in fact there are very significant dimensions to the Internet—the technology, the policy, the geographical spread, the uses of it, the issues of malware, malfeasance, and crime on the Internet, etc. And the rate of progress, if one can call it that.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Sadowsky: Hopes and fears are very emotional words. Let me talk about concerns and observations.
Sadowsky: One of the concerns is whether this Internet structure is sufficiently robust to be able to stand the attacks of people who use it for their own purposes that are not necessarily good. And this comes from the initial design which was to be used in a cooperative group of researchers and academics. So that the issue of authentication was never taken really seriously. So for example right now it’s quite possible to spoof somebody’s name on email. You know this. You’ve probably gotten those emails. And so you don’t really know—just to stay at the email level although we could go further—you don’t really know who sent you that email. And most of the time you know, you have a context in which you can interpret what you get. But there’s no guarantee. So that people are able to go on the network anonymously, spoofing, using somebody else’s name, and do bad things. We have no good defense against that right now.
The alternative would have been an Internet with very strong authentication, so that you could be sure that if you got a message from someone it would be from that someone and no one else. It’s very hard to retrofit this back. And of course among a group of cooperative scientist you don’t need that. Among 6 billion people on the planet, you absolutely do need it. And we don’t have it. So the concern is the robustness of the current Internet in the absence of considerably stronger authentication of individuals.
In terms of the hope, I think the Internet’s well on its way to becoming a utility. Costs come down, not only for Internet service but also for the terminal equipment that’s used. Typically before six or seven years ago it was a computer. Now it’s often a mobile phone. And so you can get access to the Internet through devices, some of which remain to be invented, that are fairly cheap and fairly versatile. So that one should—I would hope that ten or twenty years from now we live in a world in which Internet access is taken almost for granted, and that it’s conceivable that the Internet—the name “Internet”—will actually fade and we’ll just consider it part of the infrastructure that we’re used to just like you know, there’ll be a plug in the wall for information services over the Internet. There’s a plug in the wall for electricity. We don’t have an Electricity Society. We do have an Internet Society. Will the Internet Society continue? What will its focus be as the Internet becomes part of the infrastructure for the whole world.
Intertitle: Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Sadowsky: A lot of those actions are being taken now. In ICANN we’re hardening the domain name system so that it is much less capable of misuse than it was before. We need countries to understand what the Internet is and what isn’t. And unfortunately what happens there of course is that the Internet by encouraging free flow of information goes against the governmental regimes that really don’t believe in that and restrict information from getting to the people who live within its boundaries. So it’s a much larger question about what actions can we take to ensure the free flow of information, and one of them is working with governments. And that’s not only the Internet Society and people like ICANN but also other governments and the entire civil society movement, to loosen the boundaries that restrict information from flowing. This is probably a neverending fight. And what we can hope to do is ameliorate the current situation, and maybe 100 or 200 years from now it won’t be so much of an issue anymore.
Intertitle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Sadowsky: It is also clear that we are in an adolescent phase of learning to use the Internet. Ten years ago, fifteen years ago we were in infancy. Now we’re flexing—the Internet’s flexing its muscle. OF course that’s an anthropomorphic way of describing it. People are feeling very empowered to use the Internet to try new things. That’s a better way of saying it. And some of those things are pretty bad, but most of them I think are very promising in terms of helping human intellect or human development, economic and social development, especially in developing countries.
The issue about using it well is…it’s a thorny issue because what’s a good use for one person is not necessarily a good use for another. But I remember in Athens in 2006 at the first Internet Governance Forum there was a youth panel. And the moderator put a question to the panel you know, “What do you and your fellows use the Internet for?” And he didn’t follow a lawyer’s maxim which was don’t ask a question unless you know the answer.
So the answer came back from several people, “Oh, we use it for email. We use it to play games. We like to look at pornography.”
And without missing a beat, the conversation went on. And you know, you think that there are a lot of people who’ve invested a lot of time to bring the Internet to people, and if you’re really only going to use it for that, why did we do this? So the issue I think is to sensitize people to the strong benefits that can be brought but which don’t have to be used. It’s like any technical tool, any technical advance; you can use it for good, you can use it for evil, you can use it for silly things. But this tool is much more powerful than most others, and it’s important that we also try to sensitize people to what can be done on it and how they can improve lives—their own, or other people’s, or whatever.
George Sadowsky profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013