Net's Council of Elders Survey Their Revolution

At the Internet Society, They're Proud of Their Protocols

July 2, 1995

By Scott Rosenberg

HONOLULU -- The Internet has no president, chairman or owner; no parliament, stockholders or supreme court. All it has in the way of an authority, at least morally and technically, is the Internet Society.

The Internet Society is part professional association, part brain trust and part chamber of commerce. Think of it as cyberspace's council of elders. Its purpose, according to Vinton Cerf, the group's longtime president, is simple: "Keep the Internet going."

The society's leaders are the people who conceived the computer-code foundations of the net -- transmission protocols and routing algorithms -- in the late '60s and '70s, when many of them were grad students. As their countercultural coevals marched in the streets, they were in the labs, dreaming up a different kind of revolution.

Theirs, ironically, was largely initiated by the U.S. military, which wanted a decentralized computer network that could survive nuclear attack. Theirs has also proved more lasting.

Today, as a quarter-century of their work has finally seized the public imagination, these pioneers -- most of whom now sport close-cropped gray beards -- speak more fervently than ever of "the Internet revolution." Their annual meeting here in Waikiki this week proceeded in an atmosphere of satisfied triumph. Behind the scholarly restraint, you could sense the thought: We succeeded -- we built something that works.

At the opening session, Eric Schmidt, the conference chair, announced the society's predictions for the Internet's size five years from now: 187 million host computers (there are 6 million today); more than 10 exabytes of data traffic on the World Wide Web (an exabyte is 10 to the 18th power bytes); trillions of dollars in net-based commerce.

The conference's keynote speaker, Jean Jipguep of the International Telecommunications Union, reminded the crowd of 1,500 attendees that the Internet isn't the only medium in the global village: "Compared to the 640 million telephone subscribers or the 1.2 billion televisions, the Internet, with an estimated 30-40 million users, is just a small part of the telecommunications world."

Size, though, isn't everything. Most conference speakers argued that the Internet's genetic traits -- like open design, decentralization and adaptability -- make it an unstoppable juggernaut. In their eyes, it's faster than individual economies, more powerful than any nation's lawmakers, and able to leap borders with digital ease.

The U.S. Senate wants to control the data flow of sexually explicit pictures? Forget it, came the answer: The recently approved bill is unconstitutional; more importantly, it's technologically unfeasible.

Authoritarian governments abroad, like China and Singapore, think they can reap the economic benefits of the Internet without handing their citizens a powerful tool of dissent? Pretty unlikely; it's the nature of the Net to overwhelm restraints -- to "eliminate middlemen and empower individuals," as Schmidt put it.

No industry is safe, either. In Cerf's words: "At first, the print publication world didn't want to hear about the Internet. Then it was, we can't ignore it, so what's it all about? Finally it became, this can't be stopped, so what can we do with it? Sooner or later, everyone will face these questions."

Lest you dismiss such sentiments as the over-confident arrogance of a scientific world view, keep in mind that, so far, this group's predictions have been remarkably accurate. The Internet's astronomical compound growth rate has held constant for the last seven years, Schmidt said: "If you were a betting person, you would not bet that that growth curve would slow."

The conference drew participants from 115 different countries, and it focused on spreading the Internet gospel around the globe. Today, the bulk of the network's traffic is concentrated in North America and Western Europe. Asia is wiring fast, with Latin America a little behind, and Africa remains largely off the Net.

Americans who sometimes see the Internet as a reservoir of pop-culture effluvia -- from celebrity pin-ups to David Letterman's Top 10 List -- may wonder what value it offers countries whose plumbing, irrigation and telephone networks still need work.

Hassan Rizvi, an official of Pakistan's Sustainable Development Networking Program, told an instructive story. When an "unscrupulous operator" dumped barrels of an unknown toxic substance in front of the Karachi railway station in May 1993, the Pakistanis -- who had only plugged in their system a week before -- sent an SOS out over the Net. The detailed responses that flooded in helped local chemists figure out how to dispose of the volatile metadinitrobenzene without it exploding -- or killing any more people than it already had.

While U.S. companies race to figure out how to make money on-line, the less-wired nations look to the Internet as a source of scientific data and an engine of commercial development. New Internet ventures, based at universities, have recently been launched both in China and in the nations of the former Soviet Union.

In Russia, Belarus and Ukraine, the problems stem from lack of funding and inadequate organizational support. In China, the barriers include the relatively primitive state of the existing telephone network and the government's ambivalence toward Net culture.

A delegation of professors from Beijing's Tsinghua University and an official from the Chinese telecommunications ministry suggested that China intended to block its users' access to Net sites it considered objectionable. Considering the size of that task, the Chinese authorities will have to employ legions of Net-surfing censors before they finish networking their 1,000-plus universities.

For the Internet Society elite, such developments merit concern but not alarm; in their view, the logic of the Net will prevail. And for those hype-averse Americans who think the Internet is a flavor-of-the-week fad destined to go the way of CB radio, the society's message is: Don't hold your breath.

In Cerf's words: "Computers are not going to go away. Telephone systems are not going away. The digitization of communications is not going away. And, let's face it, Sneakernet" -- computerese for carting disks by foot from one computer to another -- "is not gonna hack it on a global basis."

Abstracts and papers are available at the Proceedings of the ISOC '95 conference.

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