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Internet's Longtime Diplomat

Vinton Cerf is a voice of reason for the medium he helped create.


Vinton Cerf sounded an alarm when some U.S. lawmakers wanted to fence off Internet pornography by creating an ".xxx" domain name: He didn't see how adult sites could be forced to move there.

Persuaded largely by Cerf's arguments, the lawmakers opted instead for a "" domain that kid-friendly sites could voluntarily inhabit and that would respect global differences by being an American address.

Once again, a man widely respected as one of the fathers of the Net exercised a moderating influence over the medium he helped create.

More than a quarter of a century after co-developing the communications protocols that glue the Internet together, Cerf still binds the global meta-network: He is a savvy mediator among the technical, business and political communities that try to shape it.

Cerf tries to keep bad decisions from wrecking the Internet--chiefly by translating geekspeak into English.

"I do consider myself a kind of advocate for understanding as much as possible about the Net, even if it's just a matter of having a kind of cartoon model of how it works," Cerf said. "Even cartoon models can lead you to reason correctly about the effect of various decisions."

Advocate. Ambassador. Voice of reason.

"What Vint has brought to the table very much is the ability to talk about what the Internet is outside the tech community," said David Farber, former chief technologist for the Federal Communications Commission. "By being in the middle, he keeps them from doing a lot of damage."

All that, and a sense of humor too.

Describing Internet-enabled socks that can monitor vital signs, Cerf speculated: Why not use the same technology to let the left sock call out to the right when the two separate?

His speech at the recent Internet Society conference drew laughs and a wide round of applause.

On behalf of that group, Cerf articulates a vision of a shared responsibility among Internet users and developers for making the Internet available, secure, affordable, accessible to everyone and free of excessive government and commercial control.

He also stays involved in research.

At WorldCom Inc., Cerf is a senior vice president for advanced networking, including services that combine data, voice and video. He was with MCI years before it merged with WorldCom and helped design MCI Mail, one of the Net's first commercial applications.

At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Cerf works on extending the Net's reach into outer space.

Cerf also is honorary chairman of the IPv6 Forum, which promotes a next-generation numbering system to accommodate the ever-growing armies of Internet-ready wireless devices, game consoles and even wine corks.

And in one of his most contentious roles, Cerf is chairman of the Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers, the key oversight body for domain names.

All this wouldn't have happened without the TCP/IP protocols that Cerf and Robert Kahn invented in the 1970s.

The Net in its earliest days was a single network operated by the Defense Department. Cerf and Kahn were charged with changing its communications protocols to interconnect--internet--multiple networks.

The team decided to make the new protocols dumb but flexible--in contrast to rivals' feature-rich, proprietary techniques.

That proved crucial and allowed applications such as e-mail and the World Wide Web to connect, along with personal computers and wireless devices not anticipated then.

Cerf always understood that technology doesn't exist in a vacuum.

Hearing impaired since 13, Cerf found in e-mail an ability to communicate with clarity that he couldn't get on the telephone, even with hearing aids.

His recognition that the Internet was as much about the people as about computers and wires would be his guiding force in years to come.

"He's given the Internet a heart," said Don Heath, former chief executive for the Internet Society.

Michael Nelson, a former White House aide and now an IBM Corp. executive, described Cerf as "someone whom policymakers and industry leaders look to for advice."

Cerf often visits the White House, on his own or as part of an advisory group. He is a regular on Capitol Hill and has met leaders in Britain, Germany, Japan, India and other countries.

Cerf recalls one recent conversation with a congressman who wanted to tackle security by ensuring that every data packet was authenticated by computer routers, the Internet's traffic cops. He said he succeeded in explaining that if routers had to do that, they wouldn't have any computing power left to perform their basic tasks.

Not that governments always listen.

Cerf testified before a French court deciding whether Yahoo Inc. should have to remove Nazi-related materials from its online auctions, even though they were legal elsewhere. Though Cerf and other experts warned that the requirement was impractical, the judge imposed it anyhow.

Nor does Cerf always succeed in mediating.

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