Internet pioneer Cerf stresses policy over technology

TORONTO — When it came time to thank Internet pioneer Vint Cerf for his speech to the Empire Club on Thursday, a member of the head table recited a poem composed by Cerf himself. It’s called “”On the last eclipse of the 20th Century,”” and it begins like this:

Lo! The Sun’s corona briefly

yields

to deep penumbra. Blossoms of the fields

give way to slumber as the darkness reigns

and darkling twilight every petal stains.

In an interview afterwards, Cerf admitted that although he remembered the poem, he had no idea where the woman had gotten it, if not on the Web. “”If I had to look for it on my hard drive on my laptop, I doubt I’d ever find it,”” he said. “”I often think that if I ever get Alzheimer’s, Yahoo! and Google will be the solution.””

Cerf, WorldCom’s senior vice-president of Internet architecture and best known for co-designing TCP/IP, told the audience he saw the Web as more than a mere memory aid. He described the possibility of reuniting pairs of missing socks by using their IP addresses. He discussed a Japanese scale that captures users’ weight and transmits it electronically to their doctors. Yet none of these potential benefits will be worth it, he said, unless governments and industry are prepared to tackle the issues around copyright, taxation and privacy.

“”Policies are more important than the technology,”” he said. “”These are what we have to tackle first, even when there are no objective answers.””

Taxation, for example, has proven a contentious issue as e-commerce has developed, in part due to questions over what jurisdiction gets to tax the transaction. Cerf recommended a solution that is built on unambiguous data, like the billing address of the buyer who made the transaction. “”We don’t want to lose the tax base, or they’ll find something else to tax,”” he said, adding that of all the priorities governments face, their first responsibility is to ensure that those who conduct business electronically have a way of resolving these disputes. “”The tax issue won’t be vital until the volume exceeds that small number of transactions that’s happening now. But we will get there.””

Increasingly, Cerf said, policy decisions have a significant impact on business models. Dedicated access links, for example, have been set at fixed prices, shifting away from the historical per-minute billing that is common in other telephone services. As the Internet becomes the underlying transport medium for all media, fixed price service models will be introduced to TV and other forms of communication as well, he said. WorldCom is already adopting this model in its consumer and business Connections service.

Cerf said he spends about 80 per cent of his time on the road, talking to WorldCom customers and working with a team of about 40 engineers to try and predict the future direction of Internet architecture. But his pet project, he told the Empire Club, is the expansion of the Internet into the solar system. For the last four years, he and colleagues at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. have been trying to develop standards that can deal with the constant motion and distance between space vehicles, or planets where TCP/IP doesn’t work. “”It takes about eight minutes to 20 minutes to get data back and forth between sites (in space),”” he said, “”compared to the fraction of a second we get on the ground — though I know it doesn’t feel like that on dial-up.””

Cerf said the group hopes to have new protocols for the Internet in space by the end of the decade. In the meantime, he plans to keep on indulging what he called his own “”surprising dependency”” on the Web. “”The content is astonishing,”” he said. “”Yes, it’s sometimes incomplete or misinformed, but so much what I find there is fresh, up-to-date, and really insightful.””

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