The Father of the Internet on the Future of the Web

Last Friday Dr. Robert Kahn, viewed by many as the founder of the Internet, spoke about the development and future of the Internet at Georgetown University. Dr. Khan, who pioneered DARPA’s Internet initiative and co-invented the Internet Protocol (IP) system, spoke at length about the emergence of the Web and its evolution into the future.

Looking forward into a world where billions are connected to each other using Internet-equipped devices, Dr. Kahn’s speech offered several important takeaways. The first lesson he shared was the importance of understanding what exactly the Internet is -- and what it isn’t. Kahn’s technical definition (“A series of protocols which connect components”) is not the most tangible one, but it does remind us that the Internet is not some concrete thing, located in some server somewhere (Kahn himself detests the term “cloud,” because it allocates a physical location to the Internet).

Rather, Kahn told us, the Internet is an infrastructure which enables two or more “components” (devices, handhelds, computers, etc.) to communicate with each other. Only once we conceive the Internet as such do we begin to see its vast potential to connect people using their Web-enabled mobile devices. The power of 21st-century ICTs is not necessarily that this communication is possible, but that the “protocols” which comprise the Web are based on open and evolving structure.

The IP address (a 32-bit set of numbers which identifies a device in a network) was a child of this open architecture. Working at DARPA trying to connect several computers in a room to each other, Kahn and his colleagues initially described computers by the color of the cord connecting them. Realizing that this Internet technology could apply to dozens of devices throughout the building, Kahn invented the Internet Protocol to help assign a unique number to each networked component. “Defining standard interfaces [such as the IP address] made it possible to manage the evolution of the Internet without managing the individual components,” Kahn said.

In today’s hyper-connected world, Kahn’s foresight cannot be understated. It would be impossible to manage a network of billions without the standard of the IP address. But IPs the way Kahn conceived them are already having to adapt to the rapidly inflating global network; we’re due to run out of IP addresses within a year (fortunately, a newer protocol called IPv6 is already being integrated into the infrastructure of the Internet to allow for centuries of new IP addresses). Said Kahn, the story of the IP address and its evolution is a story of success for open architecture and development. “Fundamentally,” he told us, “the architecture of the Internet has remained unchanged over the past 40 years” -- a remarkable fact given how dramatically Web use has evolved over that time.

During his lecture, Kahn shared various other ideas about the way the Internet will be managed in the future, or rather, how it should not be governed. “When the world discovered the Internet 10-15 years ago, virtually every country believed that it was essential to their future development,” Kahn told us, “Yet many of the countries had one lead question: Who’s in charge? Well, just like the global economy, world health, and weather patterns don’t have anyone in charge, neither should the Internet.” Kahn’s fear is that granting countries the authority to govern the Internet would inevitably lead to censorship. More importantly, doing so reveals a lack of understanding on how the Web operates: “Governance of the Internet is all about how the players coordinate,” not how countries monitor it.

To review, Kahn’s defense for an ungoverned Internet relies on the open architecture upon which it is built. To paraphrase Kahn, governments can restrict Web access, but they can’t deconstruct its protocols and architecture, so any device or “component” capable of reading these protocols will provide its user with access to the network of information. It all comes down to the open development and continued open-source evolution of the Web, which Kahn believes hold the key to the Internet’s success for hundreds of years to come.