Dennis Jennings: During the 1980s I became interested in computer networking. I was introduced to computer networking in 1977, where a friend of mine ran a symposium in Trinity College Dublin where people like Vint Cerf and Louis Pouzin and all the people involved in the early days of packet switching and datagrams and circuit switching came to talk about computer networking, and I was fascinated.
Then I joined University College Dublin as the director of IT infrastructure, Computing Services as we called it back then, and started to do some networking work. And I proposed the Irish national research and education network HEAnet (Higher Education Authority Network), and I brought BITNET to Europe as the European Academic Research Network—well actually IBM brought it to Europe. But I was the first president of EARN.
And then I was invited to go to the National Science Foundation and I joined them on the 1st of January 1985 as the first Program Director for Networking. So my role was to build the supercomputer access network. Well when I arrived I changed all that. I decided that instead of building a specific network for supercomputer access, I’d take a more strategic, long-term view—at least that’s how I express it nowadays. I probably didn’t think of it in those terms.
But rather than take a tactical view and connect supercomputer users to supercomputers, I argued that we really should be building a…network—a general-purpose network—for all research. For researchers at the campus network at their workstation on the campus, across to supercomputer users. And that in the long term, a general-purpose network of networks would serve the US research community best, including supercomputer users. So that’s how I got involved, and I designed and started to build the NSFNET, which was a network of networks, or an internet. I determined that it would use the TCP/IP protocols. At the time I became known as “Mr. TCP/IP.” And I insisted that they be used.
Now, the clash between the strategic view and the tactical view was where all the arguments were. So people who were supercomputer users had no interest in the long-term strategic view, they wanted access to their supercomputer now. Their model of the world was “Give me a leased line to my desktop, or my local VAX or whatever.” They didn’t want to rely on the campuses. But my mother was different. And so there was a tension all the time between the short-term demands of the supercomputer access program—the Advanced Scientific Computing program—and the strategic view of building what essentially became the Internet. So that’s how I got involved and that’s my modest, I hope, claim to fame.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?
Jennings: For me one of the key breakthrough moments was in 1984, when I was invited to come to Washington to meet a group that were looking networking for the US. I was also invited to come and talk to the National Science Foundation. And in fact I was also invited to come and talk to the CSNET people about the role as director of CSNET, so I had a lot of opportunities and eventually took the NSFNET program director one.
But I took the redeye shuttle from San Francisco to Washington. So I arrived…you know, not in great shape. And I went to this meeting of you know, the giants of networking in the United States. This was one of my first early visits to the United States. And you know, you have the impression coming from a small country that the experts in a larger economy, the experts in the US, are…giants. They’re much more sophistication and much more knowledgeable than we are.
And my breakthrough moment was sitting in that meeting and realizing that you know, I was just as good as these people. And in fact, taking the marker and going to the whiteboard and sketching what I thought the network should be. And that realization that…you know, I too could play on the same page as these guys was a breakthrough moment—a personal breakthrough moment for me.
In terms of building networking, I think one of the breakthrough moments was meeting a guy called Ira Fuchs who was the founder of BITNET, one of the two founders of BITNET. Now, BITNET wasn’t the Internet. It was a…its technology was quite strange. But very effective. And Ira told me the importance of delivering networking services to the end users. That really, it wasn’t about the technology. It wasn’t about the protocols. It was really about empowering the users to do something useful at their research desk. And that’s one of the things I brought to the NSFNET program, the idea that we must deliver valuable service to the end users.
So those are a couple of breakthrough moments for me.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Jennings: I think for most people, the Internet in weather terms is in brilliant sunshine. It’s warm. It’s comfortable. It’s exciting. But over the horizon there are some very dark clouds. And those dark clouds are all about trust. About privacy. About data protection. About data exploitation, monetizing of data. About security and privacy. The issues that I think are going to become critically important to the Internet. There’ve been extraordinary things happen over the last decade or so, arising I think from the the dot-com boom and persisting and becoming even more egregious now. The idea that personal data’s there to be monetized. To the extent not only personal data that is volunteered to you but personal data that is stolen. There are now apps on mobile phones that steal personal data for monetization purposes.
So the culture in this commercial arena has gone from bad to truly appalling. I don’t understand how people think that my personal data given for one purpose is there for people to monetize for any other purpose. And I think that’s a serious threat to the Internet.
I think that the Snowden has done the world a great service by exposing another serious threat to the Internet, and that is the fact that those custodians which should be responsible for protecting our privacy and our interests are actually deliberately and with malice hoovering up data in the anticipation that with data analytics and big data so on that they’ll be able to protect us better in the future. This is complete nonsense. Has completely undermined not only the trust in the Internet for some people but the trust in governments for lots of people.
And I think those are serious, dark clouds on the horizon for the Internet. So, for most people the Internet is in brilliant sunshine. And it’ll get better, with faster technologies, better handsets, 4G, 5G mobile networking, better apps and so on. But those dark clouds are very very serious, I think. And they are undermining the trust in the technology, and undermining the trust in governments. And I think that’s…an issue.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Jennings: Well I’ve outlined my concerns for the Internet. You used the weather analogy, and I think it’s sunny with very dark clouds.
My hopes are that we will actually—collectively, and in particular civil society will drive this—will demand that the various actors address these concerns. My hope is that civil society and governments will address the data privacy, data security, the criminal activities appropriately.
And in that regard, much to my surprise, two things have happened that give me great hope. One I’ve mentioned already, which is that the European Parliament has passed the net neutrality acts. It’s now up to the governments in Europe to ratify it. The structure in Europe is that way round. So I expect a huge battle with the telecoms people. And huge lobbying to protect their interests. And civil society needs to make sure that governments hear civil society’s arguments here.
The second thing that gives me hope is that the National Telecommunications and Information…Authority? Agency? NTIA, in the Department of Commerce, has recently announced that they want to essentially withdraw the US government’s stewardship of the technical parameters of the Internet. They announced that about three weeks ago, about a week before the ICANN meeting in Singapore ten days ago. And that gives me great hope that there is leadership in some governments to recognize the role of civil society, to recognize the role of the multistakeholder community comprised of the technical community, the telecommunications community, civil society, the participants in the standards process, and governments, as a multistakeholder grouping to provide the oversight and governance that’s necessary of the appropriate parts of the Internet. And that gives me hope.
Intertitle: What action should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Jennings: Since I’ve just spoken about trust, I think there needs to be a reexamination of what trust is required to improve the way people perceive technology and use technology. In that context, surprisingly one of the exciting things that’s happened is that the European Parliament, only the other day, has passed legislation on net neutrality. Very good legislation, which actually very carefully specifies what net neutrality is and very carefully specifies what exceptional services are.
Now, the European Parliament is not known necessarily for its high-tech foresight. But in this case they’re leading the world in passing legislation which I think is really important. Both in enforcing the idea of net neutrality, and in allowing exceptional circumstances for special services. That needs to be followed by appropriate data retention, data protection legislation. And needs to be followed by putting manners on the security forces so that they actually act in the long-term interests of society.
The security forces have been arrogant, extraordinarily arrogant. There’s a deep suspicion that they have conspired to undermine security in the standards of the Internet. Because they felt that they were smarter and better than anybody else. Not only their political antagonists around the world but the criminals around the globe. And that’s fundamentally stupid. The security forces in states have to abide by the law. Mind you, the way some of them have acted you wonder whether they ever considered that seriously.
But within the criminal fraternity…never have to operate within the law. So to imagine that you can undermine security technology to give you an advantage is to be unbelievably stupid. And that’s another threat to the Internet. That by having created a global infrastructure that is not rooted in the national territories and government law, one has created a global criminal underworld that is very much in control of what goes on in the criminal world, and is deeply threatening to the— I think one of the things that protects the economy from being completely undermined by the criminal underworld is that they’ve no long-term interest in completely undermining. Because they want to be able to take their fair share, as they would see it, of the global wealth, but take it criminally.
That combination of data retention, privacy, data monetization, undermining security, and criminal activity are the dark clouds that I talk about in the Internet as we look forward. To deal with it, we need to put some shape on what’s been called “internet governance.”
Now, I’m sorry but I’m a— I don’t like the term “Internet governance.” I think sticking two nouns together doesn’t make a sentence and there’s no semantic in it. So I think a more layered, more structured, more…sophisticated approach is going to have to be taken to Internet governance. And I think you’ve got to separate the underlying technology from the things that the IETF and the IAB and ICANN do in terms of the global infrastructure and what governments must do nationally and internationally. In all that I think that civil society, you and me, or you and I I suppose but correctly, need to make sure that we keep all the actors honest. Especially governments.