Thursday, 22 March 2012

Vint speaks: The UK’s internet community listens

Internet God Vint Clef set the room alight today, when he addressed the usual suspects at the annual meeting of the UK Internet Policy Forum in Central London. If there ever existed a living invividual whose personal contribution to mankind exceeds that of Vint, then I would be very surprised. I’m so grateful to my chums at Nominet for making today’s event happen.

For those who don’t know, Vint is the VP and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. He co-invented the architecture and basic protocols of the internet and has received more awards and honours than anyone would ever need. It was he, some 40 years ago, who put in place building blocks which everyone takes for granted today. So when >The Beatles first sang: “it was 20 years ago today, Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play” back in 1967, it’s absolutely astonishing to think that the band was playing in a pre-internet world.

Just think what has happened since then.

As this was a conference on internet policy, a lot of what Vint had to say really needs to be respected. And, significantly, it is evidence of a profound disagreement about the role that Governments should play in what happens on the Internet. If I were the European Commission, I would doubt that the European view of internet regulation could be readily or properly reconciled with that of the American view.

A principal point was that individuals will always have a desire to communicate. When pressed, he admitted that what has most surprised him about the development of the internet is the extent to which so many people have been so keen to spread information via the internet. Equally, Vint pointed out that not everyone wants to hear what everyone else wants to say. Which is why we rely on search machines, clues from friends or brands to filter the information we are looking for.

He suggested that our greatest concern was the unintended consequence of introducing rules which are designed to prevent some bad things from happening, but also prevented good things from happening. To the American politicians who supported internet censorship, he pointed out that America was born in the aftermath of an anonymous revolution (Tom Payne’s revolutionary writings, published just prior to the American Revolution, were initially published anonymously, as he feared the consequences of State retribution), and that they were making a great mistake if they objected to that.

The issue, today, is the lack of sufficiently precise tools with which to prevent bad things happening, People who generally want control over the internet tend to show people the worst possible cases, and they gloss over that else their tools will prevent. Is this security or are they wolves in sheep’s clothing?

But Vint was also keen to emphasise that we do need to create ways of protecting our citizens. We can’t ignore the need to make society a safe place. But, critically, we should not pay the price of freedom of expression to serve that goal.

So, we have the old argument of freedom of expression against someone else’s fundamental rights. I think I keep hear that argument played out as the EU and US negotiators try to form a coherent view on data protection regulation. In my humble view, agreement is unlikely to break out any time soon.

Vint also made a couple of announcements that will soon turn into pub quiz questions – so you’ve heard them here first:

• Originally, Vint didn’t want to be known as the Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. When first asked for a Google job title, Vint suggested Arch Duke. And then it was pointed out what had happened to an earlier Arch Duke, and how the First World War had followed swiftly afterwards.
IP version 6 address protocols will officially be in common use from Wednesday 6 June. Currently they are being tested on the internet, meaning they are occasionally turned on, and then off again. But from 6 June they won’t be turned off. Internet browsers will have to process both versions simultaneously, if they are to work properly.

Vint saved the ultra impressive stuff to the last few minutes of his speech. He gave us a truly astonishing overview of the sort of services that Google were just about to offer, and then spent a few minutes talking about his recent role in the Interplanetary Internet Architecture Programme. That’s right. Not only will different national space agencies be able to talk to each other, but plans are also in place to communicate with objects as far away as Alpha Centauri A star (pictured), which requires communications technologies that work over a distance of 4 light years. And yes, they are already being developed.

So, how will the European Commission address the tricky issue of servers in space, when it can’t even sort out workable laws that govern flows of data to countries or territories outside the EEA? Cummon, guys, we are now talking about internet servers in space. And soon.

Very soon.

Just perhaps, space will not be that final (regulatory) frontier, after all.

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