In an interesting addition to the everlasting debate about internet censorship – specifically on the idea of an 'Internet Tax' – one of the creators of the internet has spoken out about his views on how strange the notion is, and how the interference of governments in managing his creation is both worrying and outrageous.
At age sixty-nine, Vinton Grey Cerf holds the title of 'Chief Internet Evangelist' at Google, and has recently discussed his views with Panjak Mishra of livemint.com in an interview regarding the future of technology. Cerf's contribution to the birth of the internet as we now know it came in 1974, when he and his fellow American scientist Bob Kahn wrote the protocol that enabled computer networks to communicate with each other. He was interviewed during a visit to New Delhi about the evolution of his creation, the realities of the internet versus expectations people have placed on it, the government's potentially abusive role in determining what is 'appropriate' material, and what Cerf refers to as the “bizarre” concept of levying an internet tax.
Livemint's article provides edited excerpts of the interview, including Cerf's description of the internet as a “a highly evolvable infrastructure [that] keeps absorbing new technologies”, which is still in its childhood in terms of acquirement of capabilities: thanks to the “continued evolution of technologies, there is also a continued evolution of application.” The fact that the internet wasn't created for a specific purpose enables this peculiar type of growth and development, because at its core it's designed to transfer packets, in essence, regardless of the contents of the package – and the package isn't aware of its contents, so that doesn't affect the transfer. Consequently, the underlying network doesn't need to be changed in order for new applications to be invented and employed.
Cerf believes that the fundamental nature of the internet is this permission-less state of innovation, and to retain that feature necessitates integral conflicts over privacy, governance and other issues.
In the interest of allowing the internet to keep its potential for evolution, Cerf highlights his concerns about the way forward in light of Sunil Mittal's (the founder of an Indian phone company, currently at Bharti Enterprises, who have recently been in the news in relation to their partnership with the controversial Walmart) proposal that firms such as Google be made to pay an internet tax.
In his view, a tax cannot be justified for two reasons: first, he draws attention to the notion Mittal (and anyone supporting the idea of the tax) seems to hold that the internet operates in the same way as a cellphone network, under which circumstances it is quite straightforward as users pay those who connect their calls; however, the internet does not work this way. Pinning down what exactly could be taxed (and at what rate) is problematic, and Cerf uses the analogy of the postal service charging users not for the price of delivery, but rather basing their costs on the value of what is being delivered. Second, Cerf points out that Google already pays telcos, and that there are users “on the other side” who are already paying tax, so it's not as if it's a process whereby the government is unable to tax the system.
There are reasons to be worried about regulation of the internet by governments, according to Cerf, primarily because of the sensitive information held by the suppliers of services on the internet: Google is “frequently confronted” with demands from governments to release details to them, and provided due diligence is performed and certain procedures are followed, they have no choice but to comply. Cerf says it's understandable that governments see the vast applications of the internet and wish to protect their citizens, but need to preserve and balance freedom of expression and human rights with their methods of protection. Unfortunately, governments are accustomed to issuing decrees and “having the last word”, which can lead to a somewhat over-zealous approach in countries where the government has reasons to worry about the dissemination of dissenting opinions. Cerf believes that users should be given more credit, as they are intelligent and independent enough to make up their own minds after reviewing information, and that the government's reaction to rumours should be to release more information instead of attempting to censor the sources.
Essentially, Cerf feels that the internet is a unique beast, and should not be handled the way other existing mass media has been, not least because of the virtual impossibility of monitoring the sheer level of information that flies around on it. Whereas television and print media around the world have often been controlled by governments, the internet came into being in an environment where everything is open.
Currently, US Senators Kelly Ayotte and Dean Heller (members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over internet policy) are proposing a permanent extension to the original 1998 Internet Tax Free Act, to “[preserve] the Internet as a tool for education and innovation.”