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. 

Interviewer: Okay.

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. 

Interviewer: Okay.

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.

Further Reference

George Sadowsky pro­file, Internet Hall of Fame 2013


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