Douglas Van Houweling: I’ve had several roles involved with the global Internet. I was the chairman of the board at Merit, which is a Michigan networking organization, when we developed a capability and ran a project called NSFNET, which was the first large-scale use of internet technology anywhere in the world. That project went from 1987 until 1995.
And then in 1997, I became the chief executive officer of an organization called Internet2, which provides high-performance networking capabilities for the research and education community in the United States.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments of the Internet in which you have been a key participant?
Van Houweling: When we started the activity to build the National Science Foundation Network, or NSFNET, we had a clear understanding that the money that the federal government was going to be able to spend on the network wouldn’t be adequate to do the job that the community required. So we built a partnership with the IBM corporation, with MCI—a communications company in the United States, and with the state of Michigan to add resources to what the federal government was able to invest. So that rather than having only $15 million to do this project over the five years starting in 1998, we actually had closer to $50 million to accomplish that goal.
That partnership turned out to be absolutely critical to the success of the first large-scale internet. I believe that if we had not had those resources, we probably would have failed in meeting the needs of the community, and people would’ve said, “See, we told you. This Internet thing won’t work.”
As it turned out, we had the capability to build an Internet that met the needs of eventually millions of people across the United States to connect with one another and to connect with the supercomputing centers. And that is what made the private sector understand that it was safe for them to invest money in building companies to provide Internet services.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Van Houweling: I believe that the Internet climate is one of increasingly complicated and turbulent weather. There will be periods when things will be sunny, and we will feel that we’re making steady progress but there will always be undercurrents and new weather fronts that come through and rain on our parade.
Today, we’re seeing this extraordinary growth of Internet applications for social networking, for the Internet of Things. It’s all very exciting. But at the same time, we see that the capabilities of the Internet to actually be used for purposes that are not helpful in our lives also increase as its use increases. Finding the right balance between the promise of the Internet and the hazards that it introduced into our lives is going to be our challenge. But of course that’s true of every technology that we have in our world.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Van Houweling: The Internet has so much power to enhance our lives that we need to be careful to understand how it is that we can avoid the downside of that. Now, what we’ve discovered over the history of the Internet is that it’s a powerful tool to connect people together. And as those connections become more prevalent and stronger, that of course means that there are interests, both governmental and commercial, that want to take advantage of that connection for their own benefit. We need to find a way to balance the good that comes from that with the potential bad effects.
I think that we have not yet found that balance. And that’s what worries me most about the future of the Internet. When we look at the use of the network to keep track, for instance…when I use the network, after I go shopping for something on the network, immediately I see in all of the applications I use ads for things that are similar to that. Well, one side of that says well, that increases my convenience. I can find that more because the network providers now understand what I’m interested in. But the other side of that is, I’m not sure I want to know all that information about me. Especially if that information is available to my government and could somehow be used in an effort to restrain my freedom. So, finding that balance I think is the thing that concerns me most about the future of the Internet.
I believe we have only begun to see the utility of the Internet. The Internet has so far been used to help people connect to one another. But it’s been done primarily through pretty clumsy interfaces: typing, watching a screen, etc. What I think is going to happen over the next two decades is that those interfaces will become increasingly more useful. We’re already beginning to see virtual reality. We see the Google Glass and so forth. Things that allow us to interact with the network in ways that don’t require us to type and to read text and so on but can hear us talk, can see what we see. That’s going to enormously increase the usefulness of the network and its applications.
Combine that with the fact that we’re now beginning to see the explosion of what we call the Internet of Things. Cars talking to one another as they go down the highway to avoid accidents and to be more efficient in how they use fuel. Houses understanding what the weather patterns are and what their occupancy is so they can conserve energy when they need to conserve energy. I think we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg in the way the Internet can help us live in the world with a smaller footprint on critical resources. I’m looking forward to that.
Bring these two things together, this increased interaction that we have with people and this increased ability to control our environment; I think that’s going to be a very exciting future for the Internet.
Intertitle: What action should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Van Houweling: One of the questions that we all ask ourselves is how can we work to make sure that the climate of the Internet is one of mainly good weather, rather than mainly bad weather. And I personally believe that we need to understand that there is an enormous force for modifying that climate. It’s the non-governmental organizations, the not-for-profits, that have brought us so much of the Internet’s innovation so far. Almost all the major applications for the Internet that have become so popular across the world originated in universities and colleges. They were developed by students who had access to networks that were years ahead of the networks that were available to the rest of the public. Starting with Napster, the whole Facebook phenomenon, the Google search engine. I mean, you can go on and talk about how out of these universities the young people created the future of the Internet. We need to continue to facilitate that.
The Internet is of course an enormously powerful foundation for commerce, and for people to make money and provide service. But it’s also an environment for invention and innovation. And I believe that organizations like the Internet Society, like ICANN, and our universities and colleges are going to be the key to making sure that the Internet continues to make progress and innovate into the future.