Internet Governance 12 November 2007

Address by John Klensin to the opening of the IGF

Address by John Klensin to the opening of the IGF, Rio de Janeiro, 2007

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, good morning

I seem to be the odd person on this session’s agenda since I do not have the privilege of speaking for a government or a large and important organization. I want to thank the IGF and others involved for giving me the opportunity to express some personal views about the growth of the network and how to make it available and accessible to several billion more people.

While I do not bring greetings from an organization, I do, however, have some experience with the development of the Internet itself. I hope I can share some perspective from the standpoint of the technical design, development, and implementation community, and how we got to where we are today, with a network that is serving billions of users and looking forward to serving billions more.

Much of my long-term experience is with Internet applications—the protocols and interfaces that underlie the network that end users see, rather than the core technologies that connect countries and computers. That applications work, and discussions about the policy consequences of a global network, goes back to the beginnings in the late 1960s. Perhaps I can share some observations from that perspective that will be helpful in thinking about what will be discussed in the sessions of this Forum and about how we might move forward to an Internet that effectively serves an ever-larger fraction of the world’s population.

I would like to thank the many people with whom I’ve discussed these topics in the last few weeks and the last 40 years for their considerable contributions to what I’m about to say, but time obviously doesn’t permit giving you a list.

Contrary to what one might infer from some of the discussions and publications that we have seen in recent years, the Internet was not invented and developed in 1992. Some of us have been involved in work on what has become the Internet and its underlying concepts for nearly four decades. Many of those who were involved in those discussions understood, even then, that this would ultimately become a global network if it was successful at all. In the early days the groups who were focused on how to build the network and those who were thinking about its implications and how it would be used were largely separate and sometimes not even aware of each other’s efforts. That was ok.To paraphrase colleagues, while there is a vital role for designers of plumbing and automobile engines, few people in the world care about pipes or auto engines and the details of how they work, only about what flows through the pipes and whether the automobiles provide transport and meet other needs.

It isn’t perfect: In general, we preferred to get something working, implemented, and deployed rather than engaging in endless years of exploration and discussions about how every possible need could be accommodated. Had we chosen the course of discussion and trying to meet all needs, there probably would not be a working Internet today, much less one that reaches around the world. The possibility of substituting debate for deployment and access remains a risk today.

From the beginning, the network design was characterized by a strong focus on interoperability, rather than on abstract models or locally-specified profiles. We quickly discovered that strong interoperability required

  • Standards with a broad base of participation, freely-available, and with the documents that were required to understand and implement them available conveniently and at no or very low cost.
  • Minimizing the number of options. When they are needed, communicating them as part of the protocol. This contrasted with some other traditions that included local or bilateral decisions about what options to support and how they were to be interpreted.
  • Keeping things as simple as possible. If they were useful in solving some problem or meeting some need, protocols that were straightforward to implement and that involved few options tended to become widely and compatibly implemented. It was clear that computers can handle much more complexity than the people who write and use programs. Complexity often gave us systems that did not work and could not interoperate.

One of the things I think we all need to understand as these discussions in IGF and elsewhere go forward is that whatever one likes or dislikes about the present nature the network and its extent, it is important to remember that, funding sources and the employers of some key actors aside, the design itself is not a consequence of any formal governmental or intergovernmental initiative.

Among the many myths about the Internet is that one that assumes that the Internet technological design and development community –especially the applications-layer development community– has historically not cared about “the rest of you”, or the rest of the world’s populations, or that it has simply been naive about the social and political implications of an open and global network. We have been concerned about making the Internet available to more people in more countries for a rather long time.

  • There were serious discussions about multiscript naming and content, including the first of many proposals for how to do it, by 1972. Those early ideas were very different from what we are doing today, partially because no one believed that a single standard that spanned all of the world’s scripts would be possible in the short term, but the point is that we didn’t start thinking about those issues only after people starting pressing for “multilingual names” in the last several years
  • Kanji-content email was in use by 1987. Standards were in place for interoperable multilingual and multiscript email by 1992. And the web, as it expanded, adopted the same technology that had been specified for email.
  • The original host naming rules were built on a foundation that considered national-use characters and national character sets. The decision to exclude them was not because of an ignorant preference for English or Roman-based characters but because other possibilities were just not mature enough. It was clear in this area as well as others, and even in the early 1970s, that a single choice –any choice—would yield better interoperability than permitting many naming options with the likelihood of different countries or users making different choices. The challenge of trying to maintain a global network while people construct identifiers based on a variety of languages remains today. It is perhaps useful to note ITU and ISO made very similar decisions about identifiers for the network protocols associated with X.25, and with key OSI identifiers, for substantially the same reasons.

When we examine efforts to extend the reach of the network into less-developed countries, we find that far more of the early network and email connections that were sustainable were the result of largely private-sector, bottom-up efforts rather than of major top-down initiatives.

  • There were mutual assistance mailing lists to promote email connectivity and resolve interconnection issues in the very early 80s.
  • Private, bottom-up, efforts to get developing countries connected at least by email and then with full Internet connections came about five year later, in the mid-1980s.

Many of the Internet governance problems which we see today and are discussing are neither new nor Internet-specific but generalizations of more traditional problems, often in rather thin disguises. For the subset of the issues that appear to be such generalizations, most of the reasons for casting them as new topics, requiring new mechanisms, seem to actually have little to do with the spreading the Internet and making it deployable and usable and more with other agendas.

For example, throughout history, at least modern history, criminals and pornographers have often been more efficient about adopting and adapting new technologies, especially communications technologies, to their needs than the rest of us have been. We need to accept that and move forward, treating antisocial acts as antisocial acts are treated, and developing better rules, better social structures, and better societal constrains. We should try to avoid attacking the technology itself in ways that risk damaging functionality that is, in many ways, what a conference like this one exists to celebrate.

Unacceptable behaviors — including stalking, extortion, fraud and deliberate deception– are not really different whether done face to face or on an electronic communications technology (Internet or otherwise). Abuses of the Internet may call for better intergovernmental agreements about identifying the perpetrators of such behaviors and for prosecuting the crimes across borders We should certainly keep working on technology to make it easier to track the offenders without compromising Internet valuable characteristics, but should not lose sight of the fact that the behaviors are primarily antisocial rather than technological. There are precedents for developing the kinds of agreements that might be needed, precedents that are not dependent on the Internet. Each proposed action that treats an unacceptable behavior differently depending on whether it is committed on the Internet or in some other context should be examined carefully and, I believe, with some suspicion.

Finally, almost every decision which has been made about the Internet, from the beginnings to recent times and both technological and policy, has had advantages and disadvantages. In the last decade or so, and as a community, I believe we have been very poor at examining both those advantages and disadvantages understanding that we are making tradeoffs. We need to try harder to make careful and balanced decisions, especially when one group gets most of the advantages and another gets most of the disadvantages, and to be conscious about what we are doing and giving up. At least in retrospect, creation of a market in domain names caused not only cybersquatting but also phishing. Without the market, those problems would probably not exist in their present form. Creation of an email regime that permits anyone to communicate with anyone else without having to be registered with and going through government-authorized providers, using models similar to the old PTTs, has turned email, and now instant messaging, into important worldwide communications tools. However, it also helps facilitate the work of the spammers and virus-spreaders. Even the decision to convene and hold useful and productive meetings like this one involves implicit decisions to not invest the resources in, for example, clean water or alleviating hunger. In each case, I’d like to believe that we have made the right decisions. But it is helpful to remember that there are alternatives and, conversely, that selecting the alternatives would have changed some of the things we appreciate today.

Thank you all and best wishes for a successful meeting.

* This document differs from the talk actually delivered at IGF. It contains some material that needed to be removed from the oral presentation due to last-minute constraints of speaking time.

Related resources

Internet Way of Networking 9 December 2020

Remarks at the 35th Anniversary of the NSFNET

Remarks from Internet Society President and CEO Andrew Sullivan at the NSFNET 35th Anniversary Celebratory Virtual Event 8 December...

Growing the Internet 17 June 2020

“The Internet is a deeply human technology”

Andrew Sullivan's remarks at the launch of the U.N. Secretary-General’s report Roadmap for Digital Cooperation

Internet's Future 25 February 2019

Up and Down the Stack Through a Nerd’s Eyes: Making The Internet Better the Internet Way

Andrew Sullivan's Keynote Speech at APRICOT 2019