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Vint Cerf of Google on Internet rights – interview

In an interview, Vint Cerf of Google says individuals do not have a right to connect to the Internet, nor does a person have the right to eliminate information that's already on the Web. About China: 'There is much more openness and tolerance of criticism' than the West generally believes.

March 8, 2012

Vint Cerf, shown here in 2005, is a vice president of Google and considered one of the fathers of the Internet. In an interview last week with Nathan Gardels, he said: 'I wouldn’t say an individual has the right to be given access, but he or she should have the right not to be denied access if they can get it.'

Paul Sakuma/AP/file

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Vint Cerf, a vice president of Google, is considered one of the founding fathers of the Internet. He spoke with Global Viewpoint Network editor Nathan Gardels last week.

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NATHAN GARDELS: When he founded Doctors Without Borders, Bernard Kouchner promoted the “right to protect” by crossing borders where the sovereign powers were harming their own citizens. When he was foreign minister of France, he called for Internet freedom and “the right to connect” across borders. As secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton has expressed similar views. Yet, Twitter has now agreed to respect boundaries and censorship laws by host states, prompting the Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei to renounce tweeting. Google is going back to China.

Which one of these approaches is correct? What is the role of governments? Of technologists? As you have written in The New York Times, the Internet is an “enabler” technology, not a right in itself.

VINT CERF: First of all, as far as I am aware, Google is not returning to any censorious practices in China. We don’t have any intention to go backward on that score. We continue to operate out of Hong Kong because there are not such restrictions at hk.com like there are at cn.com.

I wrote that article in The New York Times primarily because I felt there was too much focus on the Internet itself instead of realizing that this was only one of many technologies invented to facilitate human interaction, like the book or the phone in the past, and who knows what else that is better will come along in the future. So, I thought it would be odd to talk about “the right to connect to the Internet.”

However, I don’t think I sufficiently appreciated the inversion of that question: Is access to whatever the current enabler of human interaction is at a given historical moment a human right? I wouldn’t say an individual has the right to be given access, but he or she should have the right not to be denied access if they can get it.

GARDELS: Once one agrees on this basic right, then other more complicated issues come into play. For example, in Europe there is much more concern over privacy of information shared over the Web, and even a new right I’ve heard proposed: “the right to forget,” or “digital amnesty” – that is, the right of a person to eliminate information that, once on the Web, will circulate out there forever.

CERF: That is nonsense. Even bizarre. If this were a different medium – say, paper publishing – what would you do? Go to every library in the world and pull things out in your zeal to cause the world to forget in order to reset the record?

The idea that you can somehow erase the Internet is silly. The reason is that with Internet technology you can capture a photo, a quote, or an article, store it locally and upload it into the Net more than once, if you wish, to multiple sites. Can you imagine then forcing the search engines to somehow not index that information? Who gets to characterize the information that should not or no longer be made visible?

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