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About Internet Society 20 June 2024

What Makes The Internet? People Coming Together

The following are remarks from Sally Wentworth, Internet Society Managing Director and Incoming CEO, at the IEEE / People-Centered Internet event, ‘A Celebration of 50 Years of the Internet’ from 19 May 2024. Watch the recording of the speech.

Thank you to the IEEE, People-Centered Internet, and the event sponsors for inviting me to this remarkable place today. It’s truly inspiring to be in the birthplace of the communication protocols that laid the foundation for the innovative technology we rely on today. Today, we celebrate one of the most phenomenal inventions that has undeniably transformed our world for the better: the Internet.

My name is Sally Wentworth, and I’ve been working on issues that affect the Internet throughout my career. During the last 15 years, I have been an advocate for an open Internet at the Internet Society, and I am now honored to be the incoming CEO. As some of you may know, the Internet Society was founded over 30 years ago by Internet visionaries—two people with us here today, Dr. Vint Cerf and Dr. Bob Kahn—with the vision of the Internet for everyone.

There is one globally connected, decentralized Internet. It is the people’s resource, controlled by no one, kept thriving and growing by many stakeholders because it is made up of all the participating networks. Because no network is, in some basic technical sense, more important to the Internet’s operation than any other network, there is no center of control. That is what the inventors of TCP/IP gave us—a common protocol for distributed networks to work as though they are one.

The Internet pioneers gave the world this technical infrastructure to use without charge. The protocols, technologies, open standards, and policies come together as the Internet, a self-governing force for good in the world.

Fast-forward some 50 years, and this gift to the whole world has spurred an entire digital economy. It kept us connected through a global pandemic. It has given us unparalleled access to information and education. It has connected us in ways we never thought possible as a borderless global community. It levels the playing field for people who are isolated or marginalized, providing equal opportunity. The Internet enriches lives.

This great invention has become a critical backbone for communication, commerce, government operations, and virtually every industry in the global economy. Moreover, the Internet continues to fuel ongoing innovation in networking, building upon reliable designs like TCP/IP.

Its impact has been truly transformative, shaping how we connect, conduct business, and drive progress globally.

The thing is, there’s no guarantee that the Internet will always be here. We could break it, maybe permanently, and lose this valuable resource and everything that depends upon it.

All over the world right now, nations are imposing borders on the Internet, though it was originally designed without country borders. Companies are also trying to control it for their own interests. Governments are shutting down the Internet and suppressing free expression and the flow of information for people everywhere. Meanwhile, roughly 2.9 billion people, one-third of the global population, do not have access to the Internet, depriving them of this tool of opportunity.

As I mentioned earlier, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn chartered the Internet Society in 1992. They recognized the need for an organization dedicated to the vision that the Internet is for everyone. In part, the intent then, as it is now, was to facilitate and support the technical evolution of the Internet and to stimulate the involvement of the academic, scientific, and engineering communities in the evolution of the Internet.

As part of our work, the Internet Society supports and collaborates closely with the Internet Engineering and Research Task Force (IETF) to facilitate the evolution of the TCP/IP protocol suite and the integration of new protocols into the Internet architecture. To this day, the Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force support and facilitate an ever-growing community working collaboratively on Internet issues.

In the 30 years since its founding, the Internet Society’s reach has extended across the globe to include over more than 110 active chapters of volunteers across six continents who work tirelessly to build and defend the Internet in their local communities. We are also fortunate to have Organization members and partners who are committed to the continued growth and development of an open Internet across the globe. This is the community, the society, that makes up the Internet Society. Working together daily to build and defend the Internet for everyone.

I want to share a brief story about just that—the community working collaboratively to solve Internet issues.

A few months ago, in the early morning of March 14, an underwater rockslide occurred off the coast of Côte d’Ivoire in Western Africa. This sort of thing happens all the time, often going unnoticed.

At the same time, people in Western and Southern Africa started their day browsing the web, working, and communicating online. However, on this day, their Internet was much slower than usual, if it worked at all. Unreliable Internet access is a common issue in that region, stemming from local policies, unreliable infrastructure, and the persistent digital divide.

As users attempted to troubleshoot the issue, local Internet Service Providers struggled to determine the cause of the sudden loss of connectivity. Unbeknownst to them, the rockslide had cut four out of the five subsea cables, leaving only one cable to support all the traffic of several countries. The outage impacted 13 African countries on the West African seaboard, causing degraded services and, in some cases, near-total Internet outages.

Historically, this event would have compromised Internet connectivity in this region for weeks, if not months.

However, the people of this region have been working together with the technical community for years—as far back as 2000—to build local capacity and invest in local infrastructure. For example, local Internet Exchange Points—many supported by the Internet Society over the past 10–15 years—sustained local Internet connectivity when connections to the outside world were broken. 

Internet connectivity has now been restored to sustainable levels in all 13 of the affected countries. This quick return to connectivity is a testament to the kind of collaboration that is a hallmark of the Internet community.   

I tell this story because it is sometimes easy, especially here in Silicon Valley, to take the Internet for granted. But we must never do that. We must remember that it is thanks to a community of people coming together to build and nurture the infrastructure and protect it that it will keep thriving for generations to come.

And this is true not only in the physical sense of broken cables, but in the more abstract sense of policies and decisions being made across the globe that undermine the very characteristics that make the Internet so unique and so important to us all. It is the Internet community that, working together, keeps the Internet strong and globally connected.

The Internet Society is a global community defending the Internet as a force for good in the world. We have a deep understanding of its technical beginnings and the policies needed to keep it growing and thriving. We are passionate about ensuring the Internet’s future for generations to come—breaking down barriers to access—so that people everywhere can benefit from this tool of opportunity.

Together with the wider Internet community, we will continue our work to advance the Internet. The Internet Society is committed to joining together with colleagues across the Internet ecosystem to build and safeguard the Internet for future generations. If you believe in the Internet for everyone, we hope that you will join us in this endeavor.

Image © East 27 Creative, Jennifer Heffner

Disclaimer: Viewpoints expressed in this post are those of the author and may or may not reflect official Internet Society positions.

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