Gihan Dias: I’ve been involved in devel­op­ing the Internet in Sri Lanka. And so what real­ly hap­pened was when— It start­ed when I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent in California. And this was in about 1986. And so I was a grad­u­ate stu­dent. And then we had this thing—at that time we real­ly did­n’t even call it Internet, we called it ARPANET. And so it was some­thing real­ly use­ful, and we thought okay, why don’t we have this back at home in Sri Lanka. 

So then we said okay, let’s try and find out how we can do it. And the first thing we did was we set up an email ser­vice. And it was dial-up, so some­body from the US used to call Sri Lanka once a day and trans­fer email using a tele­phone line and a modem. And then after that in 1993 when I was back in Sri Lanka, we start­ed build­ing the Internet in Sri Lanka, and the first net­work was just con­nect­ing three uni­ver­si­ties in Sri Lanka. 

Then after that we con­nect­ed to the Internet. And then we had more net­works in Sri Lanka. And then final­ly we had the aca­d­e­m­ic net­work as well as a lot of com­mer­cial net­works. So I was sort of involved in bring­ing that up basi­cal­ly from zero up to where it is right now, which is basi­cal­ly twenty-three years later. 

Intertitle: Describe one of the break­through moments or move­ments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.

Dias: So, the first one was as I said that we… So it’s not real­ly where—I always tend to say we,” because it’s not just me. It’s not some­thing where you know, just one per­son sat and did it. It is always groups of peo­ple, and very diverse groups of peo­ple. The first group of peo­ple were a set of grad­u­ate stu­dents who hap­pened to be in var­i­ous countries—US, Canada, UK, and sev­er­al oth­er places. And they had this thing called email. And I think at the time—this was in the mid-1980s—Internet was basi­cal­ly email. Because the World Wide Web had­n’t even been invent­ed. So we were send­ing mes­sages up and down using email. And we formed a group called SLNet, Sri Lanka Network, which was a set of peo­ple, ini­tial­ly maybe two or three and then it grew to dozens and then hun­dreds, of peo­ple who were using email to talk to each oth­er. And that was the first breakthrough.

And this was a group of peo­ple all around the world, many peo­ple had nev­er met each oth­er before…or ever. There were plen­ty of peo­ple there who have nev­er ever phys­i­cal­ly met. But we used to have meet—we dis­cussed things by email and exchange news. So that was the first breakthrough. 

And then we found that okay know we need­ed to trans­fer email to Sri Lanka. And we were actu­al­ly mak­ing calls and it was cost­ing like more than a dol­lar a minute. So we need­ed to raise funds. So then we got togeth­er and start­ed to raise funds, and that was the sec­ond break­through, where we actu­al­ly have to raise funds. 

Then we set up a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, which is actu­al­ly still around, called Lanka Academic Network. So all of that had real­ly hap­pened while I was in the US doing my PhD. Then I fin­ished my PhD in 1992, got back home. And so by that time, we had a basic Internet there. Well, email was there. And then we start­ed to build the Internet. 

And again, it was very very basic. So the first Internet con­nec­tion we got was between Princeton and Colombo—Princeton, New Jersey and Colombo. And that was at 64 kilo­bits per sec­ond. And I can still remem­ber it was I think in 1994 when in fact we had­n’t even got Internet into our uni­ver­si­ty. So we had to go to the tele­com office in Colombo. So they were show­ing us their brand new con­nec­tion with the US. And I was like, My god, this is so fast!” Right? And we can see a page in like you know, sec­onds. And right, now when you look at it from today this was run­ning at 64 kilo­bits per second. 

And just to give a per­spec­tive, recent­ly there was a site which had got an Internet con­nec­tion long ago in Sri Lanka. And they had got a 65 kilo­bit line. And for what­ev­er rea­son they had not upgrad­ed this, and they’re still run­ning at 64 kilo­bits. And I was like, Oh my— What is this? 64 kilo­bit, it’s so slow. You can’t even—” You know, just to upload your web page takes minutes. 

And that’s the dif­fer­ence between 1993 and 2013, right, where 64 kilo­bits, my reac­tion was, It’s so fast!” to, Oh my god, what are you doing? 64 is…” You know, it’s nothing. 

Right, so those were I think some of the defin­ing moments. Another defin­ing moment I can men­tion is in 1998 we were approached by the Swedish International Development Agency. And they said they want­ed to fund us to devel­op the uni­ver­si­ty net­work. And this was quite u—not use­ful. I would say this was very inter­est­ing or very unusu­al. Usually when you want fund­ing, you have to sit and write pro­pos­als, and then give it to them and they will con­sid­er it. He it was real­ly the dif­fer­ence. They came and told us, We want to do this. We’re going to fund this. Just write some kind of pro­pos­al and we’ll fund it.”

And the rea­son I believe is they had seen what we were doing with very very lim­it­ed fund­ing. And they real­ized that we were capa­ble and we could do it. So basi­cal­ly they said, Okay, we know you can do it, we’ll give you funds.” And so that was some­thing real­ly interesting. 

And I think the last thing I would like to talk about is when I watch my stu­dents, or maybe even just people…you know, just ran­dom peo­ple using the Internet. And did­n’t real­ize okay, they don’t even know that this is any­thing spe­cial, right. They just…open their com­put­er and they use the Internet. And does it cost too much? Not real­ly. It’s very afford­able. It’s avail­able. And peo­ple take it for grant­ed. So that’s the last thing I would like to say. So we have got from a stage where we had Internet just link­ing three place, three uni­ver­si­ties in Sri Lanka, to a point where like any­body and every­body uses Internet. So that’s I think the real great thing. 

Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weath­er anal­o­gy and explain why.

Dias: I would def­i­nite­ly say sun­ny. I mean there’s no ques­tion about it. So, the Internet is still young, right. So it’s only twenty-odd years—well…thirty, what­ev­er, depend­ing on where you take the date of birth. So it’s still quite young and I think it has many many years to go before peo­ple say, Oh, it’s not the Internet any­more, it’s some new tech­nol­o­gy.” And still we haven’t even come to the stage where any­one says okay, here’s this new thing which is going to replace the Internet. So I think Internet is going to be around for a long time. It will prob­a­bly change. And I have no idea how it’s going to change. I mean I have some ideas, but I real­ly have no real idea. But I believe it’s going to be there. It’s going to be more and more com­mon. And I believe that in… 

And please, also I want to men­tion the dif­fer­ence. Okay. So here we are in Berlin. Or maybe you are in…where are you really?

Interviewer: I’m in North Carolina.

Dias: Which city?

Interviewer: Raleigh.

Dias: Raleigh, okay. Alright. And I’m based in Sri Lanka. And so there’s still a huge dif­fer­ence between what is avail­able maybe here in Germany and in the US and in oth­er coun­tries. And there’s anoth­er huge dif­fer­ence between our coun­try and cer­tain coun­tries say in Africa, right, where the type of stuff I’m talk­ing about is not there. So we need to have coun­tries like Sri Lanka, India, and you know, a lot of those coun­tries, move to a point where Internet it ubiq­ui­tous. Then we need to get some more coun­tries where Internet is still not real­ly there to a point where it’s real­ly there. So there’s a whole lot of stuff which needs to be done. 

And it will be inter­est­ing to see what the future of the Internet would be say, in the US. So right now like, we have almost any­one, or every­one, hav­ing Internet. But what’s it going to be? So that’s the question. 

Intertitle: What are your great­est hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?

Dias: There’s lots of fears. So one major fear would be pri­va­cy. So pri­va­cy is some­thing which we used to take for grant­ed. Now we can­not. The oth­er major fear I have is cen­tral­iza­tion. That for exam­ple if I have a device, if I have a phone, it tends to say well, I con­nect to my home. I con­nect­ed this com­pa­ny,” and every­thing has to go through that com­pa­ny. And so I think that’s real­ly a bad thing, because the Internet was designed as a decen­tral­ized net­work, where every node is inde­pen­dent and can talk to any­one. And if you cen­tral­ize it too much I think it’s going to be real­ly bad. So I think those are two of the major fears we have. 

And so one of the things I’m work­ing on right now is some­thing called Personal Cloud, where— Today when you say cloud” you think of this huge data cen­ter some­where where there’s huge amounts of data spent, but does it have to be cen­tral­ized? Cloud is fine. But it can be decen­tral­ized. It can be yours; it can be at your home; it can be on your mobile device—anywhere, rather than you know, being in one huge data cen­ter. So that’s some­thing which is in my vision, that we have the cloud and all these new things be per­son­al­ized. So one vision we have is for Personal Cloud. 


One thing I for­got to men­tion is lan­guage, right. So, Internet start­ed off at the begin­ning as very much English-centric. So it start­ed off in the US and then many of the coun­tries which joined were English-speaking. And even right now, today, we have the IETF run­ning here, and the con­fer­ence runs entire­ly in English. There’s peo­ple from…I don’t know, fifty coun­tries or some­thing here right now in this hotel, but the con­fer­ence runs in English. Which is fine. But the peo­ple using the Internet are not English, right. I believe already English is not the…or less than 50% of Internet users speak English. And oth­er lan­guages are going to get more and more and more. So we need to make Internet mul­ti­lin­gual, espe­cial­ly for small­er lan­guages. So, I come from a small coun­try where we have two lan­guages, one which is spo­ken by maybe about 50 or 60 mil­lion peo­ple and the oth­er by about maybe 20 mil­lion peo­ple. And then we are lots of oth­er lan­guage just spo­ken by fair­ly small num­bers of peo­ple. We need to make sure that the Internet does­n’t lead to death… 

So lan­guage is one, the oth­er part of that is cul­ture. So we have many many cul­tures in this world. And the Internet enables us to talk to each oth­er. So what we also want to ensure is that this lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty is main­tained and increased. So Internet can be a force for homo­gene­ity. Which is some­times good. Also it should be a force for het­ero­gene­ity, for diver­si­ty. So that’s one of my hopes for Internet, that Internet will be diverse. It helps us to be diverse, it helps us to main­tain our cul­ture, our lan­guage, and things like that. 

And the oth­er one which I men­tioned is mak­ing Internet ubiq­ui­tous, mak­ing it avail­able to every­body. My vision is that Internet should be like water, alright. So, you do not say,
Well, water is for some peo­ple only, right? The oth­er peo­ple would­n’t real­ly need water.” No. I mean, water has to be made avail­able to every­one. And it’s either free or at such a low cost that peo­ple do not real­ly wor­ry about Okay, I’m pay­ing so much for water.” So we need to get to the same thing for Internet, where it is some­thing which is con­sid­ered essen­tial and such a low cost that you real­ly do not wor­ry about it. 

Intertitle: Is there action that should be tak­en to ensure the best pos­si­ble future?

Dias: One is…it’s…I don’t believe in cen­tral­iza­tion. As I said, we believe in decen­tral­iz— And Internet itself is decen­tral­ized. I mean, there is no Internet author­i­ty which…we can go and say, Oh, make this hap­pen.” It’s nev­er going to hap­pen. If at all, the author­i­ty’s the group which is meet­ing right now, here, the IETF. Which lays down stan­dards on which the Internet runs. 

So it’s us, all of us. So the peo­ple who are here in this con­fer­ence, in the meet­ing today, and many many oth­er peo­ple around the world who should decide okay, where do we want to go? And one is we should take tech­ni­cal steps to make sure that hap­pens. Two, we need to work with the gov­ern­ments in the countries—the inter­na­tion­al bod­ies like ITU and so on, and civ­il soci­ety, to make the Internet go where we want. It will not go there by itself. So it’s up to the peo­ple who have a vision for the Internet to make it go where they want, and they have to engage the tech­ni­cal peo­ple, the gov­ern­ments, the inter­na­tion­al inter­gov­ern­ment bod­ies, and civ­il soci­ety at var­i­ous var­i­ous lev­els to make sure Internet goes where it wants. 

Further Reference

Gihan Dias pro­file, Internet Hall of Fame 2013


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