Cerf says Internet lacks essential features

Vinton Cerf urges government and IT industry leaders to take a more active role in addressing the Internet's shortcomings

One of the Internet’s founding fathers and modern evangelists, Vinton Cerf, warned a gathering of government and technology industry leaders that the Internet “still lacks many features that it needs,” including essential authentication and security tools. But he urged the leaders to support a national broadband policy that provides universal, high-speed Internet access, not merely the availability of broadband communications networks.

Speaking at a Washington reception hosted by the trade group TechAmerica, June 10, Cerf also spoke of the importance of developing new Internet protocols capable of broadcasting information to multiple destinations simultaneously, rather than the current model, designed to send information from point to point.

And he talked about how future solutions for securing ad hoc networks — a critical challenge for military operations — may lie in work underway to expand the Internet into outer space. Efforts to overcome extended interruptions in delivering information to remote satellites have led to new protocol designs, he said, adding wryly, “We have the possibility of applying alien technology for our terrestrial requirements.”

Cerf, a vice president at Google and its chief Internet evangelist, said that despite the Internet becoming operational in 1983, it remains “incomplete” and lacks many essential features.

“One of the most critical of those features is authentication. Everyone who cares about the transactions that take place on the Net, or about whether the devices you’re talking to, or the people who are emailing, or the systems with whom you are trying to contact are the right ones should be deeply concerned about that technology,” he said.

“Even in the simple cases, like the Domain Name System, we don’t yet have digitally signed naming systems,” beyond some top-level domain names today, he said. That makes it easy to be misled or get the wrong IP address, he said.

“This is an area where any of you who have responsibility for any portion of the government’s [DNS] should seriously give some thought to that,” he said.

Cerf highlighted several other security shortcomings.

“We’re pretty good about building concrete tunnels, using simple [Secure Sockets Layer] techniques,” he said. “The trouble is those don’t generally identify the endpoints; they simply secure the channel. But securing the channel is not adequate. Suppose you have an e-mail with an attached virus; you build this encrypted tunnel to send this e-mail from end to the other; the virus goes along with it, thoroughly encrypted; no one sees it; it gets to the other end and of course does its damage.”

The solution, he said, “will have to be authentication integrated into many different layers,” including the routing system.

E-mail is another example, he said, noting the ease of spoofing the source of the e-mail. “We have to make a regular practice throughout the system of finding ways to authenticate the origin of e-mail or their content,” he said. “I’m not arguing these things don’t exist, but they are not uniformly in use. And that’s something we should be worried about on a national and international scale. To the extent government can show leadership in this domain, is something that I hope we can take into account.”

“The last obvious thing about security is malware. There’s a lot of it out there. It causes a great deal of trouble. It’s not easy to detect. Google does its best when we crawl the Web to identify places where malware may be present, but we don’t always successfully detect that. We do warn people when we detect malware to ‘please, don’t go there.’ But some people still go there anyway,” he said.

Cerf said another example of how the Internet is incomplete is the lack of ability to broadcast information.

“What we should be doing is augmenting the architecture so that we take advantage of the fact that a radio broadcast can be received by multiple parties (simultaneously). There aren’t a set of protocols that take advantage of that today.”

“We do a terrible job serving mobility and yet more and more of the Internet is being accessed by mobile devices,” he said. “There are 4 billion of these devices in use today, and though only about 20 percent of these are Internet-capable, more and more of these will be over time. We need to incorporate some serious protocol work in order to deal with that.”

“And just to add to the list,” Cerf said, “we all know we’re running out of IPv4 address space. Somewhere around 2011, there will be no more [IPv4 addresses] being allocated. The next time an ISP goes to one of the regional Internet registries and says I need some more address space, the answer will be, ‘There ain’t no more left.’ Unless you want IPv6 addresses, of which there are a great many: specifically 3.4 times 10 to the 38th [power] of them.”

“Only the Congress can appreciate numbers on that scale,” he said, drawing wide laughter from the audience.

“But it’s vital that we get both v6 and v4 to work in parallel,” he said.

Cerf urged the audience to give further thought to “the talk about broadband because that is a major consideration today,” he said.

“Specifically, the definition of broadband has to be more than 200 kilobits/sec. My preference for broadband is 100 megabits/sec and up,” he said.

“More importantly, the term broadband is sometimes not used to mean broadband access to Internet, it’s simply meant to be broadband transport. And here we have a very fundamental question to ask ourselves. In the past, we had universal service. The purpose of that was to assure that everybody could get telephone service. In the 21st century, I submit to you that the universal service we want is broadband access to the Internet, not simply broadband,” he said.

“The reason this is important: I believe the flexibility of basic Internet is so great, that having lots of it around will stimulate new applications, new products and services,” he said. “I would rather see lots and lots of very, very high-speed Internet carrying virtually any product or service, whether it’s video stream, audio streams, or other applications —the openness of that platform should generate a substantial amount of [gross domestic product] improvements … and new jobs,” he said.

Cerf’s noted that the Internet was having a profound economic impact on businesses.

“We are in a period of time when the economics of digital information are transforming a lot of industries, and in some cases interfering with their business models,” he said, citing the newspaper industry as example.

But he also highlighted the challenges of dealing with copyrights that evolved from an earlier era.

“We all understand the principle purpose of copyrights was to provide benefit to those creating intellectual property for a period of time,” he said. “Some people will argue the current copyright period is for a longer period than is necessary. But the more critical thing is that the control of copies was the basic way this copyright benefit was conferred. Internet comes along and it turns out to be a giant copying engine. When the World Wide Web works, your browser goes out to a Web site and copies the files on the home page of that destination host and interprets it. We are going to have to step back and ask ourselves, in the context of this kind of digital distribution environment, what new models and copyright benefit can we invent to figure out new ways of compensating people from creating intellectual property?”

“If you think information is power you’re wrong,” Cerf concluded. “The real equation is information sharing is power — making information available to the general public that it owns, because it paid for it, in government is exactly the right step. I believe that the tools are available and are evolving that we will empower people to use, acquire and understand information that’s never been available to the entire human race before.”

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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