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.