Meet the dot father

3 May 2012

The co-inventor of TCP/IP networking and Google's chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf is widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of the internet

Co-creator of the internet and Google vice-president Vint Cerf says Ireland is well positioned for the digital age. He tells John Kennedy we need to save newspapers to save democracy.

Despite issues with broadband over the years, Ireland has actually prepared itself well for the opportunities of the digital age. That’s the opinion of Google vice-president and chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf.

Cerf praised Ireland for having foresight in recent decades to develop an IT economy with the right policies. However, in developing a digital economy there’s more we need to do. The UK is arguably the world’s most internet-dependent economy, with 7pc of GDP derived from the internet. I point out to Cerf that Ireland is trailing and that less than 4pc of GDP comes from the digital economy.

Known as one of the ‘fathers of the internet’ Cerf, along with Bob Kahn, co-designed TCP/IP protocol suite – the infrastructure on which the entire internet depends to send and receive data. In the 1980s he developed the first commercial email service MCI Mail.

Cerf also founded the Internet Society – which celebrated its 20th anniversary last week – and he was instrumental in creating the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

“I’m very impressed at how over the last few decades Ireland concentrated its belief in ICT in order to build up a new kind of business base,” said Cerf.

“Your policies encouraged outside investment. Long-term planning showed the ability to develop markets not strictly domestic.

“Ireland showed the ability to go after the bigger jobs, built up its skills base and attracted international businesses. You came to the table with a lot of thoughtful effort to prepare your country for the IT space.”

Vint Cerf’s recommendations for Ireland

But when preparing Ireland for the challenges of the next few decades Cerf has a number of recommendations.

“There are several things I think are advisable.The first one is to continue to churn out trained engineers and scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians. Really skilled people. Not all of them will go into IT jobs necessarily but an awful lot of that is needed to create the infrastructure that supports IT and its developments.

“The second thing is thinking about business models and recognising that your domestic IT economy has its limits, despite enthusiastic uptake and everything else. So whatever you do, if you’re going to design new businesses you need to think about them exporting services and products and so on to other economies besides your own. You pointedly have a big one right next to you in the sense of the European continent, but everyone else in the world is gaining in terms of nous.

“Do you know that in China there are 500m people online on the internet today and the government, in spite of all the things you hear about, like censorship, is still investing enormously in bringing the internet up and making it available and useful – so you don’t want to lose an opportunity to try and get access to that.

“The third thing, you need to see the personal wealth of the country go up – GDP per capita – and the only way we can do that is for people here to easily start companies and to grow them.

“And there are all kinds of things that get in the way of that, such as difficulty to incorporate or if you have a failure or bankrupt company the CEO is personally liable and you can see how that might lead to timid kinds of attempts to grow, not taking any chances at all because of the personal liability. So having limited liability arrangements is important and that is probably true here as it is in England. But in Sweden it is not the case.”

The last time I met Vint Cerf was in 2006 at Google’s Dublin HQ. Then the internet was a large screen experience on a PC and the mobile web sat inside walled gardens on feature phones or on nascent smartphones.

Zoom forward to 2012 and the mobile web is the web and everything is social.

The transformation of media

Vint Cerf quote

I put it to Cerf that if anything the internet has transformed media – anyone can produce, share and broadcast media on virtually any device. So why then is the media industry hurting so much – particularly newspapers?

“Jimmy Wales (of Wikipedia) asserted in the Internet Society’s 20th anniversary keynote speech the death of Hollywood would happen and nobody would notice. He didn’t mean there wouldn’t be anymore entertainment, he just meant that it would be produced a different way.

“This is an important issue. On the journalism side, especially, I believe that good quality journalism is vital to a successful democracy. And we all have seen the erosion of the business model of the newspaper, binding those two things together.

“Historically, newsprint was the cheapest way of distributing large quantities of the same information to a large number of people, unlike radio and television, which are also mass media but they are ephemeral.

“The problem is the online environment has a different set of economics than paper because it’s cheaper and faster. So the problem is because the economics of newspapers were so compelling when they were first produced because you had all those eyeballs reading news and this produced advertising revenue stream and subscriptions.

“What’s happening in the online world as we’ve seen at Google is first, you don’t have to send the same advertisements to everyone, you can personalise that and you don’t have to wait for an edition to come out.

“So now with the conundrum you imply is the business models for newspapers today are not producing the revenues they once did and that harms the quality of the product. The question is: is there an online model that will produce the same revenue per reporter? And I honestly do not know the answer to this question.

“But I believe we must find an answer because it’s too important to our society. You cannot depend solely on blogs and tweets and other things – they are important because they sometimes give you pieces of information instantaneously which you wouldn’t normally get.

“The good part of all this is that everybody in theory can become a source – I carefully did not say ‘reporter’ because I want to save that word for the journalist who actually does quality work.

“So I’m still in a quandary just as you and your colleagues must be, but we must find a solution to this, we have to find business models that will work.

“I’m just an engineer but I have this feeling that once we are online and we deliver information, we may be able to make the information we deliver more actionable with a push of a button than we could in the past.

“Now that’s a tiny glimmer of an idea, but what it says is that the analysis that a journalist is doing could extend now beyond the explanation to actions – now that’s a rather interesting extension to what we do with news.”

Creating the internet


7pc: GDP in the UK dependent on the internet (Boston Consulting)

4pc: GDP in Ireland dependent on the internet (Boston Consulting)

1.1m: Daily hits on YouTube in Ireland – a nation of YouTube addicts?

2,300: Number of people Google employs in Ireland

€75m: Amount Google investing in its European data centre in Dublin

I asked Cerf how must it feel to have played such a guiding role in the creation of something like the internet, which has had a revolutionary impact on society and business.

“Some people imagine that I’m pounding my chest saying ‘I did that’. I know that this is infrastructure and secondly it wouldn’t have happened without millions of people wanting it to happen, so this is one of those lucky moments when your idea is adopted by lots of people.

“If you think about this as a road system, about all we really did was figure how to make the roads and suggested some rules for the road like don’t drive on the same side at the same time because you’ll run into each other or don’t make the cars bigger than required because the road system won’t hold it.

“But we didn’t say anything about what kind of automobiles you can make or about what was inside them, nothing about what businesses or buildings on the sides of the roads, that were all open, so in a sense we simply created an enabling capability.

“These are all layers of capability and enabling and it’s the creativity of the general population which I find completely and totally amazing and it is very satisfying to know you can do something as simple as that and trigger this consequence,” Cerf concludes.

“I have no idea how this is all going to end up and almost don’t care, don’t worry. I just sit back and enjoy the show.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years