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?
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.
Gihan Dias profile, Internet Hall of Fame 2013