Ben Segal: Starting 1984, thirty years ago, I introduced the TCP/IP protocols into CERN. CERN is the physics lab in Geneva. Which I don’t have to…tell you more. Some people don’t know CERN. And between a ’84 and ’89, I did that with a very few people. I coordinated the introduction of the Internet protocols, which were not wanted at CERN. There was quite a lot of opposition in Europe, and CERN is in Europe. And so it was an underground operation.
I also, starting from ’86, taught Internet protocols, and Unix, and distributed computing all over the world, starting in Italy, ICTP—International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste. That’s an institute that teaches students from developing countries. And so that led me to be invited and teach for many years after.
So, I also was a member of the board of trustees of the Internet Society. So I’ve had that sort of role as well. But primarily the reason I’m here is that I got interested in the Internet from ’84, and I was an early introducer at CERN.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?
Segal: So the key thing is that starting ’89, Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web at CERN. He was a young guy at CERN. He kindly said I was a mentor to him, because I was doing this operation of introducing and teaching protocols. I taught him socket programming and that sort of thing. And I noticed him as a young…eager beaver. And I watched the process of him inventing the Web, single-handedly. So, that’s the highlight and I would say that wasn’t a result…you know, direct result of what I did, but certainly I helped to create the ground for him, the environment for him, to make that invention at CERN. Because CERN was not a particularly fertile place. CERN is a physics lab. It’s not an innovative lab for computer science, computer networking. It still isn’t.
But, I knew Tim’s boss. And he was also a man, Mike Sendall, who made space for Tim. Tim was basically allowed to do this as a hobby, aside of his mainline job. So that’s the direct, if you like, major impact. There were many people, like I was, who were introducing the Internet in Europe, against opposition. In the States maybe not. But the fact that it led pretty directly to enable the inventor of the Web at CERN, a very unlikely place, I do take some credit for it.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Segal: Yes, it’s partly cloudy. I think probably most people are gonna say that. The Internet was a dream for us, we thought, you know. What Tim used to say, by the way, Tim Berners-Lee used to say if people could just agree on a few simple things. And I used to say to him that they’ll never agree, Tim. There’s too many stakeholders that don’t want to share. The big companies, the big international organizations. I said they would never. But I was wrong.
So our dream that these protocols would unite the world and that the process of the Internet, which is a bottom-up process, you know— It’s a process. We say “rough consensus and working code.” That’s the spirit of the Internet. That that process did succeed. It was a dream for all of us. And the result was that we connected the world but we connected the good stuff and the bad stuff as well. And everything follows from that. That’s why it’s partly cloudy.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Segal: The concerns, okay. Like many people now, we’re concerned about this invasion of privacy. The whole thing about surveillance. In the past it was known that the NSA and the British equivalent were scooping up all the traffic. This is going back a long time. But they weren’t able to process it. I mean, you could record email and phone or everything, but you didn’t have the technology to process it. But now they do. And to store it. This is a major threat to freedom.
I was very interested to see that Tim Berners-Lee himself, at a TED conference I think it was, actually spoke out in support of Snowden. This is of course very controversial. But I must say I think that what Snowden did is a service to the world. And of course, it’s very delicate what he did. He’s put his life at risk. But I think on the whole it was a very good thing. And it’s alerted people.
So that’s one fear. Basically my fear is that like many things in life and economically, today I fear the Internet is going to be dominated more and more by the rich and powerful. And I’m also frightened of what we call the Dark Internet. You know, there’s a sort of a sub-Internet where a lot of nasty stuff is going on. Maybe it’s good that it’s separated. Maybe it needs to be more separated. But certainly it’s inevitable that the dark stuff in life is on the Internet as well as the Internet connects everybody. So that’s some of my fears.
My hope. I hope that openness can counter some of this. The Internet Society has tried to be a voice for this ever since the beginning. The Internet is for everyone, as Vint Cerf says. Openness is a good, subversive power. This has been the spirit of the Internet and open source over the years. I think and I hope, okay, that common sense can prevail. That the common sense and the educated approach. I mean we talk about democracy. Democracy has its dangers. The fact that a lot of the activities on the Internet are not very edifying. This is a democratic thing. Most of the people in the world are not very edified, okay. But, I do hope that the people in charge of the Internet—or well, the Internet has nobody in charge of it. I hope the people with the most influence on the Internet can have an educated common sense approach. And I hope that will save the Internet from being a force for bad rather than a force for good.
Intertitle: What action should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Segal: We all need to keep ethical and social issues in our minds as we work on the Internet. This is not just preaching. For instance, in my life I made a commitment early on that I would never take military money. And the only exception to that, by the way, was in 1978 when I went to the first meeting on Internet in France, which was financed by NATO. At which Vint Cerf among others was talking about interconnecting computer networks. It was my first introduction to IP gatewaying, as we called it in those days.
That was financed by NATO. With that exception, which I think was a good thing, I’ve never taken military money and I’ve consciously avoided doing that. And I think that people need to think and consider what they’re working on and what the consequences can be. Many of the consequences are unforeseen. I mean I work in basic research at CERN. CERN is totally non- military. There’s nothing secret and it’s completely open. But it’s unforeseeable what you find. And inventions and discoveries can always be applied to evil things as well as good things.
But I think that we need to keep in mind then the ethical and social consequences of what we’re doing. We need to keep the bottom-up principles of the Internet. The Internet was developed by graduate students and gurus and people with a slightly subversive attitudes, which I think is good. The forces against the Internet, which were very real and very strong in the 80s and early 90s, were the force of top-down, committee designs. And this sort of over-centralized power is not good when it’s applied on a world scale. The Internet is part of the closest thing to sort of a world government agency. It’s one of the…mundialization, we say in French—globalization.
Now, globalization has its bad sides and its good sides. But in the end, we’re on one planet and we need to have globalized government and globalized thinking and globalized cohesion. But it’s good to keep this bottom-up spirit, where the standards of the Internet are designed by a bunch of people who get together a few times a year, called the IETF, and who simply with good will and the best brains that they can muster make these standards. And with that spirit I think we can keep the Internet from going downhill.
And finally, we should strive for international consensus. Now, the Internet started off as a US initiative. That was by the way one of the problems we had in Europe with it. CERN is a European lab, and many rules at CERN tried to buy European equipment, to promote European choices. And it was difficult to promote US standards. I had spent ten years in the US before I came to CERN. So I was infected, if you like. I could promote things like Unix, which is a bottom-up American invention, things like the Internet, against opposition. But I was open to that because I’d seen the possibility. But the spirit that this was a bottom-up thing, it was a small-is-beautiful thing, is very very important for the world and it’s appreciated internationally. It’s not American anymore. The Internet’s not American anymore, and the nationalization of the Internet has been actually a triumph. Some of our greatest people, like Vint Cerf, are very international-minded. And this has really helped the Internet and the Internet Society to have a lot of success.