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Internet Way of Networking 9 December 2020

Remarks at the 35th Anniversary of the NSFNET

Remarks from Internet Society President and CEO Andrew Sullivan at the NSFNET 35th Anniversary Celebratory Virtual Event

8 December 2020

On the weekend, I returned to Canada from the U.S. (I’m speaking to you from quarantine), and I passed through the town where I grew up. I observed how annoyed I was as a kid with my first computer. I grew up right next to the Niagara River, but a 20 minute drive upstream from the nearest real city (Niagara Falls). Ours was a small town. I knew there was a set of Bulletin Board Systems in Niagara Falls. Only I couldn’t call there. It was long distance and I didn’t have the money (and, if I’m honest, was probably too much of a rule follower to do phone phreaking, even if I’d known how then). I was frustrated then, and I wonder now what differences it might have made had I connected just a little bit earlier.

And yet, here we are, having a meeting about the development of the Internet through the Internet. We are repeating what so many have seen so often in this pandemic age. It may not be perfect – we all, surely, want to be together if for no other reason than to see our host’s joy as we raise a glass together! – but the Internet has preserved a great deal of our ability to keep earning our living, to keep the world economy running, to share vital news and scientific discoveries at light speed, and just to keep in touch with those we hold dear. It is, of course, sometimes unsatisfying – there is a horror in learning about people saying goodbye to family over video chat. Yet it is also a way that the vulnerable can still have contact with everyone else, but without taking the chance of deadly infection every time. And this was all still but a dream when the NSFNET got going.

Well, perhaps that is too careless a word. For it wasn’t just a dream to some. For some – for many of you – it was something like a plan. We have the Internet because of a combination of inspired industrial policy, careful choices, and hard work on the part of those of you who built the NSFNET and the Internet. It took many dimensions. The ARPANET couldn’t have happened without a decision (maybe impossible today) by DARPA administrators to invest in a barely invented technology and then to get out of the way while graduate students like Vint Cerf figured things out. (Having been a graduate student, I still can’t imagine letting one of them near an expensive Honeywell system, ruggedized or not). Vice President Gore, first as a Congressman and then as a Senator and then as Vice President, provided the political leadership necessary to get this all to fruition. Dennis Jennings decided to insist on TCP/IP because it provided a path to use the NSFNET for things that might not yet have been imagined. And of course, so many of you, mothers and fathers of the Internet, labored to make all of this happen: engineering doesn’t take place only in theory.

Now, I imagine today’s reality was not the plan in detail. I suspect that there were not too many people who imagined people with strange addictions to cat videos. And even though I remember some pretty terrible flame wars on Usenet, the old newsgroups system that has mostly been eclipsed these days, I don’t expect that many of the early actors expected quite the role a system like Twitter might one day play in elections.

And therein lies our problem today. The Internet has brought us so many wonderful things, and we are fortunate for having forebears who would give such a marvel to the world. The reason, I argue, it has been so beneficial is at least in part its architecture. The Internet invites us to create with it. Jonathan Zittrain calls it a “generative” technology, because it invites recombination so that it generates new possibilities. This is built in to the fundamental properties of the Internet. The Internet’s common underlying protocols and accessible operation means that it encourages more connections. Its open architecture of reusable building blocks creates interoperable services that can then be put together in novel ways – without getting permission from anyone. The decentralized management of the whole Internet permits greater resilience without requiring the kind of engineering that other networks sometimes did, and while still permitting local optimizations. Yet despite that fundamentally local nature, the common identifiers used across the Internet make it appear as a smooth, unified whole. And because it is general purpose, the Internet can be put to new purposes without requiring a lot of expensive reengineering to meet the new use. That is why we can say it is inviting, or generative, or for everyone.

Indeed, however we describe it, the central reality of the Internet is that it is a profoundly human technology. It lets us connect, and work together, and that is why it has such profound human effect. But of course, that does not make the Internet magically good. That some people are foolish, or mistaken, or nasty, or brutish is not some new discovery, but rather the preoccupation of moral thought from time immemorial and across every culture. It would have been no surprise to Socrates or Laozi to learn that someone was greedy or venal or believed in silly falsehoods. Yet the capacity of the Internet to be used for greed, venality, and falsehood – and to offer such human frailty at a speed and volume unlike before in human history – is surely a social issue to be addressed by every society.

Now, it is true that today many societies are attempting to tackle these issues, both through government actions such as regulation and new laws, and through private activities that try to enforce various rules of comportment upon online activities. Yet there are two facets to these efforts that deserve some of our attention.

The first facet is that these efforts often seem to focus on the Internet, rather than the human behavior. This is the classic strategy of the “tech fix”: if we just fiddle with the technology enough, or perhaps deploy some new one, like CloudyAIBlockchain over 5G that seems so often part of the offerings to save the world, then we will get the optimal outcome. People have been dreaming up tech fixes to social problems essentially forever, and there is precious little reason to believe that it will work better this time. Integrating transformative new technologies into society takes time, and care; technologies are part of the answer, but not the whole story. After all, with all of the sensor magic of a modern automobile, and despite the invention of social ideas like jaywalking and traffic lights, people driving cars still run over pedestrians far too often.

The second facet is that these efforts often do not really seem to like the Internet. Oh, sure, people say they want to make sure the Internet is healthy and good. But it is not always clear that their ideas of a healthy or good Internet is what many of us might mean by those words. In part, this is quite likely due to a familiarity that breeds contempt, or at least indifference. But in part it may also be due to opposition. Yet a tool to address these both may be the same.

On the one hand, we are all now so familiar with the Internet that we forget its nature. Particularly among people who see the Internet as mostly a policy threat to be dealt with, the Internet is the water in which they swim as fish. It should be no surprise at all that such people forget (if they ever knew) the way the Internet is not a smooth, uniform whole that can be manipulated as a single thing. It is striking to me to look back at the policy discussions during the early commercialization of the Internet, once NSFNET was such a triumph. It seems now to me that there were a lot of people, then, who understood that this was a new technology that needed some care and expertise to deal with well. I won’t say that everything was perfect, of course, but the contrast with sweeping generalizations about “the Internet” in our contemporary discourse is something notable to me.

At the same time, an awful lot of the current regulatory discourse around the world sounds very much un-Internet-like. People talk, sometimes quite enthusiastically, not about the Internet, but about national or regional “internets” that sure sound like sterile, managed utilities, hostile to innovation or experimentation and controlled by a few large corporations and governments. Some governments talk loudly about breaking up “big tech,” but are enthusiastically getting into small rooms with the important players and deciding the world’s digital future. Some of the largest corporations in human history are aggressively courting regulation. These are not the moves that promise us the open Internet we have so far known.

And this is why the Internet Society has been busy building the Internet Impact Assessment Toolkit. When people build a new road or oil pipeline or railway or reservoir, it is normal to undertake an environmental impact assessment. This is because, as societies, we largely recognize that an action can be good for some people and still bad for the thing that sustains us all – the environment. Why should we not do the same for our digital world? I say we should and must. We must understand what consequences regulatory changes will make for everyone. We must understand the way one company’s decisions about private transit or open peering can affect us all. And we must work together to create the Internet future that we are capable of making for the world.

That to me is the real lesson of this 35th anniversary celebration. We should take our lesson from those who built the NSFNET – not about particular technologies or about the specific decisions people took. We should not be nostalgic about some technologies that are no longer shaping the future humans will have. And we should not allow the early period to become some mythic age of gods and heroes, which shall never be seen again. Instead, we should emulate their greatest virtues. They – many of you – had the confidence to make decisions without completely understanding all the future possibilities and consequences. They – many of you – had the faith to expect that those to come would embrace the opportunities, and face the challenges without giving up on those opportunities. This is the legacy that any future Internet owes to the past that made us.

Thank you for this heritage. May we make a future worthy of what the NSFNET bequeathed us.

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