The open internet and the web

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Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the internet," Vinton G Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the internet. He served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000-2007, and has been in his current role as vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google since October 2005. Here he writes on the occasion of the twentieth anniversary of a free, open web.

When the internet was conceived in the early 1970s, the notion of openness lay at the heart of its architecture, philosophy and technical protocols. The system was designed to grow organically through distributed and relatively independent implementation and interconnection. The protocols were published openly and were permitted to be used without licensing or approval. The layered design allowed for new applications and new underlying switching and transmission technology. The internet did not know about applications, only about moving packets of bits from one point to another. Thus, new applications could be implemented without seeking permission from all the internet service providers.

The institutions that were created to cater to the evolution of the internet were open, bottom-up and inclusive. Anyone could and can participate in the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). The same may be said for the Internet Society, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). Many stakeholders participate in these institutions to the general benefit of all users of the internet and providers of internet-based services.

When Tim Berners-Lee invented and released the World Wide Web (WWW) design in late 1991, he found an open and receptive internet in operation onto which the WWW could be placed. The WWW design, like the design of the internet, was very open and encouraged a growing cadre of self-taught webmasters to develop content and applications. The arrival of Marc Andreesen and Eric Bina’s work on the MOSAIC version of the browser struck a potent resonance with millions around the world. Netscape Communications emerged from this period of competition as a major force in internet evolution. Its Initial Public Offering triggered the Dot-Boom. Even when the Dot-Boom waned in April 2000, there was enormous resonance and continued demand for access to basic internet service. Start-ups continue to be funded albeit at a somewhat less breakneck pace.

As mobile technology emerged with the capacity to run software applications that could interact with the vast and growing power of the internet and WWW platforms, new and very creative ideas found fertile space in which to grow. The new economics of the digital world challenged business models based on other technologies and opened new vistas for products and services that could capitalize on increasingly fast and incrementally less expensive communication. Old applications were reborn on the internet and heretofore-impossible ones were invented. Voice, video, text, imagery and every kind of data could be carried in the internet medium creating a rich and varied tapestry of applications. Open-source code created yet another current in the internet ocean, fostering further application development, functional improvement and added robustness.

All of this openness has had some side effects. Open connectivity meant that parts of the internet could attack other parts. Infecting personal computers and network servers with malware created Botnets and these collections of infected machines are used to generate spam, launch denial of service attacks and to conduct corporate and government espionage. This has spawned much debate and creative thinking about protecting the internet and the WWW and their users from various forms of malicious conduct. There is still a great deal of technical and policy work to be done to protect users, network and application service providers from harm. Some of the solutions call for changes in user behaviours (“safe networking”), some for changes in technology, some for changes in business practice and the practice of domestic and international law enforcement. Corporations have to review, refresh and re-invent their own security practices to keep up with the continuing growth and evolution of the WWW and the internet.

Although it is probably not possible to produce a precise estimate of the growth in global GDP that can be attributed to the internet and the World Wide Web, it seems likely to run into the hundreds of billions if not trillions of dollars. Some estimate that in some countries, domestic product associated with the World Wide Web may reach 8-13%. There remains a great deal of work to be done to continue to nurture and cultivate a culture of online creativity on a global scale. Internauts will be there, helping one another, inventing and sharing, as the internet and its devices and applications continue to evolve towards a future that we can only guess at today.

More on the twentieth anniversary of a free, open web:

"Twenty years of a free and open www" - Robert Cailliau

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