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.