Vint Cerf: Google Would Be Nowhere Without Net Neutrality, Permissionless Innovation

Until recently, the internet was inherently public and free.  From its inception, the net was intended as a collaborative effort. The advent of commercialized internet use in 1989 did not alter the lack of commercialization of the very service itself, but merely the tools to access it.  Recently, however, the question of whether this so called “neutrality” is a permanent and necessary aspect of the internet has come to light in the public discourse, particularly in the United States.

The BBC’s Ed Butler asked the same question today in his interview with Vint Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, as well as the question of whether this put the internet at risk. Cerf’s answer, barely before Butler finished his query? A loud, resounding “Yes!”

The issue, Cerf explained, is as follows: The internet has become both a method for the defense of human freedoms and their oppression.  The first contingency, a la the recent Arab Spring, does not guarantee good results, but it should be noted that the net is a tool, not an ideal. In short, the issue of freedom and the internet cuts both ways; it can certainly be used for negative ends like social abuse, misrepresentation, malware and DoS attacks (even, these days, using the OS’s of refrigerators, of all things).

However, Cerf noted carefully that attempting to close down parts of the net that can be used for nefarious ends also risks losing much of the value of the internet itself.

Citing Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s humble beginnings with Google, Cerf warned that net neutrality can be critical to the creation of successful business which at times involves “permissionless innovation”.  Controlling the net, therefore, should be a cautious undertaking.  Cerf advocated for multi-stakeholder, international regulation, but also noted that issues begin to arise with national security issues and fluidity in the face of sovereignty.

Cerf explained that we are in the middle of a debate about the net that is both social and near-religious in nature, a reevaluation of  values.  He posited that social pressure may help to govern the internet, drawing a parallel between social guidelines and gravitational pull, wherein high mass allows a weak force to have a large effect.

Having cited a number of attempts to sort out the governance of the internet, Cerf maintained that “Legal structures and mechanisms must make the net a safer place to be, because otherwise it will fail.”