Global Viewpoint

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.

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    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.'
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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.

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 like there are at

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?

All you can really do is what we are already doing at Google with “Street View,” for example. We automatically eradicate license plates and faces in the first place. The technology enables us to do that. In other words, we never remember certain things to start with.

All of these issues reflect a concern over what norms need to be established for digital technology. We’ve never lived in an environment in which it has been so easy to capture information and share it. That fact that it is digital and easy to transmit exacerbates that. I don’t know that we know yet what social norms we wish to adopt.

To make matters more complicated, there are national boundaries; there are different cultures and customs. So establishing uniform norms around the world seems unlikely. These social norms will be “emergent phenomenon” that result from all the various conditions coming together, and that will be different for America, China, and Europe.

So far, we don’t have any social norms that govern the Internet, and that is quite troubling. The example I always use of the conundrum we face is this. If I’m visiting Egypt, I take a picture of my friend in front of the pyramids. As it happens, someone else I don’t know is also standing in the background. When I post on my website, some third party comes along and sees that the person in the background in Cairo claimed to be in Paris that day. Then that person is in trouble.

Even if unintended, this is clearly a privacy-invasive practice. Yet we haven’t adopted any global rules or norms about how we choose to behave in such circumstances. I don’t have any prescriptions. We’re just going to have to live through this to see what emerges.

GARDELS: Either it emerges organically out of experience when, for example, something bad happens and everyone recognizes it must be corrected, or you have bodies like the UN or G-20 [group of nations] seeking a minimum “code of conduct.”

Another possibility is what Twitter is doing – you just divide your territory so that you abide by sovereign rules of the nation-states where they apply and then overlay that with global openness. (Twitter has said it will post a censored tweet and the reason for the censorship on a globally accessible site, but not within a given country.) This, in essence, is also what Google has done by going through Hong Kong (.hk) instead of China (.cn).

CERF: The question, of course, is how do you exercise sovereignty in this space where national boundaries are less and less visible? When we were designing the Internet, we made a very deliberate choice to make it non-national and network around boundaries as the core of the system. But at the same time, mainly for language reasons, we designated national domains. So, if you do a Google search in Rome it will come up in Italian, though you can force it back to the global Web page if you want to. That is our attempt to be friendly to the users wherever they are.

The increasing assertion of sovereignty on a national basis is an emergent phenomenon that has resulted from the increasing use of the Web by so many.

GARDELS: In a sense, to go back to Twitter as a metaphor, by agreeing to censorship they are reintroducing sovereignty into that open space. Interestingly, the first request to Twitter came from Brazil, where the authorities wanted to prevent street gangs from networking to avoid police crackdowns.

CERF: Brazil has been particularly interventionist in trying to control uses of the Internet for criminal purposes.

Here is what I’m imagining: Despite the fact that there is this ethereal notion that the Internet is a non-national space, companies that provide it, or provide applications through it, do operate under national jurisdictions from which they need licenses to operate as a business. So they are already conforming at the outset with a country’s rules and regulations. Indeed, it would make little sense for a company to say to investors, “My business plan is to violate the laws of X country.” That would not be very conducive to success. Google, of course, experienced that in China.

So, the fact is that the Internet does not exist in a virtual space, but is grounded in real territory with political and economic systems and the laws and regulations that go along with it. Businesses have to operate in the real world with real laws everywhere there are jurisdictional boundaries. Given that, what choices do we have in uses of the Net? You can try to ignore the laws and hope to get away with it. Or you can be law-abiding – a better survival tactic than not – but fight against intrusions like the SOPA [Stop Online Piracy Act] and PIPA [Protect IP Act], and perhaps in the future other cyber-security legislation.

I think we’ll see all of these behaviors in this environment. We’ll only discover what is thought to be sensible over a period of time through court cases or other means that will tell us what, ultimately, people are comfortable with. I can’t see any other way, because today’s media and capacity to connect and network is unprecedented. The territory – and the boundaries – are uncharted. 

Generally speaking, I find that governments have a sense of responsibility for protecting their citizens from harm in cyberspace. Certainly most democratic governments have the intent of protecting their citizens from harm. That is why there are laws.

It would be desirable for people to be able to use the Internet with the reasonable expectation that they are protected from identity theft or unauthorized access to personal information, including financial and medical records – or from more direct threats like stalking, bullying, misrepresentation, slander, and libel. All those kind of harms are possible and prevalent. So when Hillary Clinton or others talk about the “freedom to connect,” that also imposes a responsibility on the governments to protect the freely connected.

GARDELS: As I mentioned, the way Twitter has decided to deal with this lack of universal norms is to create a split level – Twitter will either allow the tweets to go forward (outside the censored territory) or explain [why] the tweet was censored.

CERF: In Google’s case, we invoke filtering in accordance with national regulations in some countries. For example, in France and Germany, we filter for Nazi memorabilia. But since it is allowed elsewhere, if you did a search on Google’s global site, you could find it. You just couldn’t access it on “.fr” or “.ge.”

In China, we opted not to agree to filtering, but operate instead out of Hong Kong, a reverse mirror of the “one country, two systems” arrangement between China and Hong Kong.

GARDELS: Sina Weibo – China’s microblogging sphere – has taken the country by storm. Whether the Wenzhou bullet-train crash or pollution in Beijing, microblogging netizens are on the case. What seems to be emerging is a kind of “monitory webocracy” that is forcing accountability on the authorities. As China, like any society, becomes more transparent in this way, the question for government becomes: “Who controls whom?” The opaque government’s response in China is to force the Web to become transparent by making everyone register in their real names and outlaw anonymity.

CERF: What is happening in China is absolutely fascinating. In the US, the First Amendment was put in place to protect free speech. Free expression today has evolved well beyond what the founders would have recognized on today’s wild Web.

When I testify before Congress, I often hear complaints about what they regard as the implicit harm caused by anonymous free speech. My response has been to remind them that the reason we are sitting here in this bastion of freedom is because anonymously authored tracts agitated for revolution and independence. Part of the rationale for the First Amendment was to codify this right to anonymous speech, which the founders saw as the key to a public being able to organize and rebel. It guaranteed free expression without harm to the citizen.

Of course, on the other side, when one speaks anonymously, one may be tempted to speak with a “forked tongue.” But trying to gear technology to inhibit “bad behavior” is not really somewhere we should go as a free society. That gets awful close to the “right to forget” notion.

One way to modify bad behavior is simply to make laws that prohibit bad behavior, and if the person is caught, there will be consequences. That, and not trying to program good behavior, is how a free society should work. It doesn’t stop the behavior, but it puts people on notice that such behavior is outside the norms of the society. We say “don’t drink and drive.” People drink and drive all the time. But if we catch them, we can take their driver’s license away.

Another way to modify bad behavior is moral suasion. Don’t do that because it is morally wrong. Probably the best way to modify behavior is to design incentives to do the right thing.

GARDELS: On the anonymity issue, perhaps here, too, there can be different takes on different circumstances. It may not be so important to protect anonymous free speech in a society like the US, where the rule of law has demonstrated that an outspoken person won’t be retaliated against by the state. In China, where that is not the case, anonymous speech is, for the moment, more important.

CERF: China is evolving faster than I would have predicted. I have always felt that the power of transparency enabled by the connectivity of the Web is a kind of universal solvent that ultimately erodes untruth. Sometimes it takes a while. But the whole process seems to be accelerating in China. In my experience, there is much more openness and tolerance of criticism [than] most in the West believe.

The government’s response is also interesting. They know that in Chinese history, revolution always comes from below and outside in the provinces. So they are very responsive to criticism over Weibo and almost use it as a kind of early warning system. They know that non-responsiveness would be dangerous.

© 2012 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.


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