Feinler describes Cerf as being “on the front lines of the Internet wars,” the long road in bringing the Internet to the public at large. Up until 1982, DARPA had just been doing test implementations, Cerf says.
“Most of the things that were built on the Internet were built, tested, tried, and had a lot of people kicking the tire,” Feinler says of Cerf’s leadership. “That way of doing business was what really built the Internet. It was very proactive. It didn’t matter – you could have a kid hacker or Nobel Prize winner giving the idea, as long as it was a good idea. That working group approach to things that [Cerf and Crocker] fostered was very instrumental in making the Internet as successful as it was.”
Vint with his wife Sigrid at the National Medals Celebration in 2016
But by the end of 1981, Cerf says, “it was clear that we were ready to test this on a bigger scale.”
He then informed everyone who was part of the ARPANet programs that they would have to switch to use TCP/IP by 1983. By that time, most participants had switched over, with about 400 machines involved, and ARPANet was split into two groups: MILNET for the Defense Department, and the remaining ARPANet that was used for research. Around that same time, the National Science Foundation became interested in using the protocols to support communications among research communities, Cerf says. Their network linked computer science research departments at various universities around the country.
The success of that network persuaded the NSF to build a larger-scale backbone, NSFNet, with the intent of connecting roughly 3,000 research universities in the United States. Around the same time, NASA and the Department of Energy also began implementing their own networks.
“The only people with access were military and the research community,” Cerf says. “But in 1988, I realized the only way this will ever get into the hands of the general public is if we are able to break the appropriate use limitations on the government-sponsored backbones, and carry commercial traffic on those backbones.” Doing so, he says, would demonstrate to the private sector that there is a market for Internet capability that they could sell.
Cerf got permission to connect the MCI Mail system, which he built for MCI in the early 1980s, to the Internet.
“As soon as I got that up and running in the summer of 1989, all the other commercial email companies … said, ‘Wait a minute. We want access to this too!’” Cerf said. “Soon these independent and formerly disconnected email systems were suddenly interworking with each other through the public Internet.”
Over the next three years, Cerf says they were helped by then-Sen. Al Gore, who “helped us go from the research Internet to the commercial Internet.”
With the way things have advanced and grown over the years, one might think Cerf was surprised by the rise of the Internet, and whether he anticipated what it might become.
“A good answer might be ‘no,’” he says. “But that wouldn’t be true. Bob Kahn and I actually saw huge potential in this kind of technology and this idea. We were thinking global at the time we did the design.”
Moving forward, Cerf says he believes the Internet will continue to be an integral part of everyday life, as well as traditional education.
“We are headed into a world in which software is everywhere, embedded in everything,” he says. “We need our young people to have an appreciation and awareness of the power and perils of widespread software operating, many cases, autonomously. They must know what is needed to use the Internet more safely, and to anticipate that bugs will cause some software not to work as intended.”
Vint will be speaking at the NSTMF’s An Evening With event at Georgetown University on March 27th. You can view video of this event here.