Category Archives: vint cerf

Is privacy a technological anomaly? So far, it is

Google's chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf comes from a small town.

Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf says privacy is a relatively new invention.

Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf is making headlines today after suggesting that “privacy may actually be an anomaly.” Speaking at a Federal Trade Commission event, the company vice-president said privacy is a relatively new invention, and that “the technology that we use today has far outraced our social intuition, our headlights. … [There's a] need to develop social conventions that are more respectful of people’s privacy. We are gonna live through situations where some people get embarrassed, some people end up going to jail, some other people have other problems as a consequence of some of these experiences.”

The knee-jerk reaction might be to write off Cerf’s comments because he works at Google, a company that is strongly interested in information being public rather than private, but the thought does actually warrant further consideration. For one thing, Cerf isn’t some corporate shill - as one of the “inventors” of the internet, he’s been a strong proponent of peoples’ rights on it. But more to the point, he’s right about privacy being a relatively new concept.

In my upcoming book Humans 3.0, I devote a chapter to how privacy is largely a technological by-product. The earliest people huddled together in caves and therefore had no expectations of it. Each successive technological invention that affected how people lived increased that expectation slightly, to the point where we now consider it an alienable right. But that hasn’t always been the case. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on November 21, 2013 in Google, privacy, vint cerf


Vint Cerf bullish on satellite broadband

One of the more intriguing things I came across at the Consumer Electronics Show back in Las Vegas was a new satellite broadband service from U.S. provider ViaSat. Coming off the launch of its ViaSat 1 satellite back in October, the company announced some relatively fast and inexpensive home internet services at the show.

An artist's rendition of ViaSat 1.

Satellite broadband has always been something of a Rodney Dangerfield of the internet world - because it has generally been slow and expensive, it never got any respect. ViaSat’s new Exede service, which boasts download speeds of about 12 megabits a second for $50 a month, looks like it could start inching broadband internet toward respectability. (Incidentally, Canada’s Xplornet is also using ViaSat 1 - while the company doesn’t yet offer that 12-megabit option, a spokesperson said it is under consideration.)

I had a brief exchange with Vint Cerf over ViaSat’s service and he was bullish on satellite broadband in general. Cerf, of course, is often considered one of the fathers of the internet for writing the technical protocols on which it is based back in the 1970s, while today he is a vice-president and “chief internet evangelist” for Google. He’s also working with NASA to improve satellite communications. Some of his comments ended up in a short post I did for New Scientist.

I chatted with Cerf the other day for something else I’m working on, so I took the opportunity to ask him to expand on his satellite broadband optimism. I asked if the technology is also subject to Moore’s Law, the phenomenon that sees computer processing power and related aspects double roughly every 18 months, and here’s what he said:

“Sort of. We need to be a little bit careful because Moore’s Law primarily has to do with the area of an active element in a digital circuit. Satellite communications, while it can have increasing amounts of processing power – which implies for example putting packet switching up in the satellite, which only one company has done and that’s Cisco at least that I’m aware of – we can do interesting things like that. On the other hand, it doesn’t necessarily generate more bandwidth. Read the rest of this entry »


Posted by on February 27, 2012 in internet, telecommunications, vint cerf


U.S. military fielding an Android army

I’m going back to my roots today with a story about military technology that could be plucked right out of Sex, Bombs and Burgers. The U.S. Army is preparing to arm soldiers with Android smartphones, complete with custom apps designed for military purposes.

“A prototype device called the Joint Battle Command-Platform being developed by MITRE is already undergoing tests with Android used to run the software as part of a bid to reduce the amount of weighty equipment being lugged around by troops,” according to Techeye.

The U.S. military picking Android for its devices is not surprising. The operating system is the most open of the major ones available, which also makes it the cheapest since its maker - Google - doesn’t charge a licensing fee. Its relative openness also makes it the most customizable, which suits the specialized needs of a customer such as the Army.

App makers have been making military-themed software for some time, like the one used to help soldiers cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Google also has a long and friendly history with the military, some of which is detailed in my book. Vint Cerf, considered by many to be the “father of the internet,” splits his time between military projects and being a vice-president at Google.

Two years ago, while I was working on Sex, Bombs and Burgers, he told me about how some military-funded space research he was doing might find its way into Android phones. Evidently, some of that is going to actually start happening soon.

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Posted by on April 27, 2011 in army, Google, mobile, Uncategorized, vint cerf, war


Are net neutrality boosters ignoring Vint Cerf?

Last week, I chimed in on the whole Google/Verizon net neutrality proposal and tried to suggest that people should step back and think about the whole thing rationally. The problem was, just about everyone with an opinion about the internet was busy huffing and puffing about how “Google had sold out” and how “Google had gone evil.”

Perhaps the most melodramatic responses came from the Free Press, a U.S. consumer group that said the proposal was even worse than feared, that it would lead to a two-tiered internet and that essentially the sky was falling. The tech press was no better, with headlines ranging from harsh to over-the-top. Taking the cake was Wired, which called Google a “carrier-humping, net neutrality surrender monkey.”

I mentioned last week that Google needed to call on Vint Cerf, its vice-president and “chief internet evangelist,” to comment on the Verizon proposal. Cerf, often referred to as the “father of the internet” for his pioneering role in building the network in the 1970s, is a staunch advocate of net neutrality and, therefore, a very well-respected voice on the matter. His support or opposition of the proposal was therefore quite important for a measured judgement of it.

For kicks, I emailed Cerf and asked if he wanted to talk about it. I didn’t expect him to get back to me - I suspect he knows the weight he carries in the net neutrality debate, and if he was going to voice his thoughts, I thought he’d do so in the largest possible forum, perhaps the New York Times, but probably not through a Canadian journalist. Let’s face facts: although we Canadians are very interested in net neutrality, this issue is proving to be an American problem for now.

A few days later, though, Cerf did respond, saying that he did want to talk about the Verizon proposal, which surprised me. Either he considered me a sympathetic ear, or he has simply enjoyed our previous talks. I don’t know.

We chatted on Friday and I posted the interview, along with full audio, on CBC. In a nutshell, Cerf approached the Google/Verizon proposal as I expected him to: with logic and a level head. He doesn’t fully like it, but he thinks it’s a worthwhile attempt at finding common ground on what is proving to be an impossible problem to solve.

Some hard-line net neutrality purists expected a staunch advocate such as Cerf to resign because there was no way the proposal could be supported. No dice on that one, Cerf said, because firstly it’s only a proposal, and secondly it has no actual weight of its own. Congress will ultimately call the shots, and as Cerf said, he could resign from his country over something Congress did, but not necessarily Google for something the company suggested.

Here’s where I get to the complaining. The story was posted on a Friday afternoon in August - granted, probably the worst possible time that you can publish a story and hope to get it read. But still, here we are three days later and almost no one - especially in the U.S. - has linked to it. Seven days ago, ZDNet’s Tom Foremski mused as to why Vint Cerf was “silent on the net neutrality issue?” yet no one so far has thought to follow up on that question? A simple Google search would show that Cerf has indeed broken his silence.

It’s not like CBC tech stories are invisible to Americans. Stories I’ve written have appeared on Slashdot and Techmeme, two popular aggregation sites, so they do show up in RSS feeds and other news alerts (most recently, a story about Canada getting unlocked iPhones featured prominently on Techmeme). I find it difficult to believe, then, that not a single U.S. tech news website picked up the Cerf story, which raises my suspicions. At the risk of sounding paranoid, I think one of two things may be at work here.

Journalists can be petty. In the newspaper world, it’s common for one paper to ignore a story if another paper broke it, and vice versa. In the online world, it’s a little better because everyone is usually desperate to fill the never-ending news hole. It’s possible, though, that the U.S. tech press is ignoring the Cerf interview because they didn’t get it. Worse still, not only did they not get it, but a filthy Canadian did. I’m not casting too many stones here, because I understand this attitude and must confess to practicing it on occasion too (the bit about missing the story, not the part about filthy Canadians).

The other, more disturbing possibility is that the U.S. tech press has seen it (I know for a fact some have), yet they’re pretending it doesn’t exist because Cerf has shown them up to be, as I said last week, unthinking reactionaries. Yup, I’m suggesting some potential bias here, but let’s face it - any publication that would trumpet Google as a “surrender monkey” seems to be pretty keenly advocating one specific line of thought on this issue (to be fair, Wired is far from alone). It’s pretty unseemly to have a well-respected voice on this issue call you out as “not constructive.”

Even here in Canada, where CBC stories have considerably more visibility, the silence has been deafening. Net neutrality absolutists, who devour every bit of information that comes out on the topic, have been pretty quiet in their blogs., a site devoted to net neutrality, has a number of recent posts on the U.S. situation, but nothing about what one of the leading advocates in the field thinks. Suspicious indeed.

That leaves me asking: What gives? Has Vint Cerf cowed the unthinking reactionaries and absolutists into silence? Was his level-headed response not the emotional ammunition they were hoping for? Or will his opinions get swept under the carpet so that the heated and more exciting “surrender monkey” debate can continue?

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Posted by on August 17, 2010 in Google, internet, net neutrality, vint cerf


Google and net neutrality: can you say hysteria?

I wasn’t planning on writing about the Google/Verizon proposal for net neutrality rules, but given the level of hysteria people whipped themselves into yesterday, I felt I had to.

The news in a nutshell: after months of talks, Google and U.S. telecom giant Verizon have proposed a set of rules designed to enshrine net neutrality, which has many different meanings but generally comes down to internet service providers not being allowed to discriminate between different kinds of traffic. The fears generally boil down to a cable TV/internet company slowing down competing video services because those services eat its own lunch, or a phone company slowing down something like Skype for similar reasons, and so on.

Google and Verizon proposed seven possible rules that would prevent this sort of stuff from happening, and they’re generally decent, balanced rules. There were two, however, that twisted everybody’s panties into a knot and prompted proclamations that Google - a long-time advocate (and beneficiary) of net neutrality - had sold out, betrayed its users and basically “gone evil.”

The first “bad” proposal has to do with the five good proposals not applying to wireless services, only wired, such as cable, DSL and fiber. The second “bad” rule seems to be a weird one that expressly permits internet providers to build their own private internet, where they can do all sorts of internet un-neutral things, like block certain services, slow others, charge company A to run its content faster than company B, and so on.

The problem with both rules, pundits said, is that they will encourage phone and cable companies to invest in the new, non-neutral Internet 2.0 and eventually shift all their customers on to it.

There are so many problems with all of these criticisms, it’s hard to know where to start. How about with Google’s apparent betrayal? The two “bad” proposals seem very much like well-played compromises on Google’s part, rather than the proverbial knife in the back. The reason given for not applying net neutrality rules to wireless was to not discourage network builders from investing in what is still a relatively new technology. The rule suggestion, however, carries with it an important clause that would let authorities check in periodically to determine if wireless should continue to be exempt.

Here in Canada, net neutrality rules were created by our regulator, the CRTC, last October. The CRTC used the same logic in exempting wireless at the time, yet changed its mind less than nine months later, in July. Google knows this - it lobbied for net neutrality rules in Canada. The company must therefore also know that there isn’t a very solid logical foundation that can keep wireless free from net neutrality rules for long if they also happen to apply to the wired internet. So on this front, I’d score Google some points in how it negotiated with Verizon - the wireless company’s win is a temporary one at best.

In terms of the concession on letting internet providers create a parallel internet, well that’s no concession at all - phone and cable companies can do that today if they want. The reason they haven’t done so should be readily apparent: such private internets would fail spectacularly. In some ways, they already have - AOL built itself a nice walled private internet, and the company barely exists today. Facebook has done something similar and it’s a fairly smart bet that its approach won’t last for long.

Critics need to step back and think for a minute. In the first instance, cable and phone companies have again and again proven themselves incapable of doing anything but running cable and phone services. Remember when you used to buy your cellphone music, ringtones and screen savers from the wireless companies? Remember how horrible it was until Apple and others who actually knew what they were doing stepped in? Remember when phone companies used to sell you internet security and anti-virus packages? How well did those do? Take one look around today at some of the online on-demand video sites being run by cable companies, and then compare them to services such as Netflix, YouTube and Hulu and tell me honestly that a private internet run by these people will be remotely as compelling as the public one.

In the second instance, why would established internet companies such as Amazon, Skype, eBay and the rest move to a private internet where the rules are set by cable and phone companies? Most importantly, why would Google, which depends on an open internet to make almost all of its money (through ads), choose to set up shop on a closed system? The illogic of it is baffling.

That second “bad” proposal contained the caveat that there also would be rules in place to ensure phone and cable companies don’t invest more in their private internet than they do in the public version. If anything, this proposal is again the result of some shrewd negotiation on the part of Google. The company is essentially saying, “Hey, if the cable and phone guys want to go and build their own internet, let them. As long as they don’t short shrift the regular internet, that’s fine.” Google has faith that the internet providers will remain true to form and create networks that nobody will want to use, yet if they want to throw good money after bad, they should have that option. Critics would do well to share some of that faith.

Speaking of which… on a personal note, I find it funny how so many internet pundits - many of whom have never spoken to a Google executive - were so quick to jump on the “Google is evil” bandwagon. I’ve probably met, spoke with and interviewed more Google execs than perhaps any other company, and without exception, they’ve all understood and had net neutrality principles close to their hearts. Their company and fortunes, after all, were built on them.

Google’s most strident supporter of net neutrality is Vint Cerf, a vice-president and “chief internet evangelist.” He’s also often referred to as the “father of the internet” for his role in writing the protocols in the 70s on which the network is based. I’ve written before about how much I like speaking with Vint because he is a very sincere and smart man that seems devoid of any ulterior agenda. I imagine his reaction to this whole situation must be quite visceral: if the critics are right and I’m wrong, I can’t imagine his resignation from Google will be too long in coming. But if what I suspect is right - that once again, unthinking reactionaries and the media have blown this completely out of proportion - then I imagine he’s got to be very disappointed.

The best thing for Google to do now, if indeed this is the situation, might be to roll Vint out and do damage control. His credibility on net neutrality is unassailable, and some reassurance from him would go a long way to correcting some of the opinions out there. There are precious few people out there who are thinking this thing through. One such sober fellow, fortunately, is Tim Wu - yet another staunch net neutrality advocate (and Toronto native). He had a piece in Slate yesterday, albeit written before Google and Verizon announced their proposal, that looked at this issue in considerably more sane terms. Hopefully folks like Wu don’t get drowned out by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

UPDATE: I should have mentioned above that I do believe the FCC and ultimately Congress should be in charge of writing the rules, not corporations. On the other hand, given that regulators and politicians (in Canada and the U.S.) have proven themselves to be thoroughly lobbyable, perhaps this is the more honest approach because at least we know where the rules are really coming from.

The other thing I should have addressed is the fallacies of net neutrality absolutists, and why they need to be ignored. Throughout the debates in Canada and the U.S., there has been a faction of people that believe “bits are bits” and that all data on the internet should be treated equally. I’ve never believed that because it’s totally wrong - the internet simply wouldn’t work properly if internet providers didn’t manage and treat different forms of traffic differently.

The fact that Skype, Hulu or online gaming actually work is the result of traffic discrimination: service providers give those more time-sensitive applications more attention, while applications that don’t require immediacy - such as email - get a little bit less. The problems have arisen with peer-to-peer applications such as BitTorrent, which have been blocked or slowed by some service providers. While there have been legitimate uses of BitTorrent, in all honesty the vast majority of people who use it do so to download pirated movies, TV shows, music (and my book). Free stuff is of course competition for the stuff that phone and cable companies often sell, so the question has become: why do the internet providers get to decide which applications get special treatment and which don’t?

That’s exactly the question that the net neutrality rules we have in Canada, and those proposed in the U.S., seek to answer. Such rules create a complaint framework that will allow aggrieved parties to make their case. If peer-to-peer applications can be shown to be time sensitive, then they’ll be protected under net neutrality rules and internet providers will be forced to give them better priority. It’s worth noting that Skype is based on peer-to-peer technology, yet internet providers generally degrade it at their peril. What absolutists refuse to accept is that if they’re going to download, say, the entire Led Zeppelin catalog for free, well they may just have to wait a little while to get it.

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Posted by on August 10, 2010 in Google, internet, net neutrality, vint cerf


DARPA is… regretting having that tuna sandwich for lunch

If you’re like me, you use Facebook to stay up to date with all the important things your friends are doing - like what they had for lunch, or what their top five favourite movies of all time are. That’s why I’m so excited about DARPA’s new page on the social networking site.

DARPA, which stands for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the U.S. Department of Defense’s main agency for technological research, which was formed in 1958 just after Sputnik was launched. The U.S. was shocked when the Soviet Union beat it to space and never again wanted to be surprised technologically, hence DARPA. Since then, DARPA has doled out tons of basic research money to just about any and every technology that could be used in war, which has resulted in some lovely spinoffs, including the internet.

Now the agency has a Facebook page, where you can sign up as a “fan” (mind you, thanks the Facebook’s ungodly new design, good luck finding the page again, short of doing an actual search). I wonder how long it’ll take before DARPA starts sending out Vampire and Mafia Wars invitations.

Incidentally, it doesn’t appear that DARPA is on Twitter yet, although that might turn out weird if it turns out that Google really is buying the site. After all, the guy who oversaw the building of the internet’s precursor, the ARPAnet, for DARPA was Vint Cerf, now a vice-president at Google.

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Posted by on April 3, 2009 in DARPA, Facebook, Google, Twitter, u.s., vint cerf, war


Space tech on Android phones

I went down to Washington D.C. to interview Vint Cerf a few weeks ago and he laid an interesting surprise on me: space communications technology may soon be coming to Android cellphones. Cerf, a Google vice-president and one of the founding fathers of the internet, is currently helping NASA test a delay-tolerant network (DTN) that will greatly improve the efficiency of space-to-Earth communications. (It’s part of the fabled “Intergalactic Internet.”)

Space-to-Earth communications are currently reliant on complicated schedules - satellites, shuttles and other sensors can only relay information back to the ground during specific connection windows, when they are passing over antennae nodes on the ground. The new DTN will make it possible for satellites and the rest to use a sort of store-and-forward system, where they’ll bypass the need to make a direct connection with the ground. Instead, it’ll work kind of like a BlackBerry - if you type out an e-mail but don’t have cell coverage, the device will store it until it establishes a connection, then send it.

U.S. military tests of a ground-based version of DTN have gone “fantastically well,” Cerf said, so we could easily see the technology applied to cellphones running Google’s Android operating system to deliver “content-directed routing.” Example: one Android phone downloads some map data, then radiates it out to other nearby phones, thus saving those other users having to download the info themselves from the cell network. Cerf said the application could be particularly useful in health care, to establish Star Trek-like tricorders. “We’re not very far away from stuff like that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to take till 2400.”

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Posted by on March 13, 2009 in sensors, space, vint cerf, war


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