Three Cheers for the ‘Sufficient’ Internet

MENLO PARK, CALIF. — The amazing power of the Internet as an information and communications source is trumpeted every day. But just talk to some of the guys who helped make the Internet what it is today, and the reviews aren’t quite as glowing.

“Windows crashes, cell phone reception is horrible and the Internet drops packets left and right,” said Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe. “And those are three of the technologies we rely on the most.”

Metcalfe, who joined a panel of distinguished tech leaders here Thursday at an event at research institute SRI, said the Internet remains popular because it’s “sufficient” in giving most people what they expect from it, and is certainly better than no Web at all.

“Reliability is expensive, and people won’t pay,” he said. In Metcalfe’s view, the Internet is hamstrung by the ideology of its builders, who generally “treasure anonymity” and won’t allow a system in which online identity can be readily verified.

He added that e-mail is on the verge of becoming unusable because of spam that most, if not all, filtering services don’t solve. Metcalfe, who is currently a venture capitalist investor in technology companies, suggested a small e-mail postage fee would go a long way to putting most spammers out of business.

Don Proctor, a senior vice president for the collaboration software group at Cisco, said people face reliability and complexity issues every day. He said he occasionally gets a call from someone in his family that “the Internet’s down again,” and described the lengthy steps he must follow to get them back online.

Jim Bidzos, chairman and founder of Verisign, was a bit more sanguine on the Internet’s reliability — at least, so far as his company is concerned. Despite the Internet being “constantly under attack,” Bidzos said, Verisign, responsible for managing the .com and .net domains, has maintained 100 percent uptime for its domain holders during the past nine years.

Jim Bidzos

Jim Bidzos

Source: Marconi Society

He also discussed Verisign’s efforts in its upcoming, $100 million Project Titan, designed to better secure the Internet from new and more sophisticated attacks.

Still, Bidzos admitted to there being kinks in the system. Verisign is one of the companies that provides so-called digital certificates intended to verify the authenticity of a Web site. But these haven’t always proven effective, as legitimate sites routinely fail to renew or keep them up-to-date.

As a result, Bidzos conceded that even he sometimes clicks through an expired certificate and gambles on it being safe. He also said that like other consumers, he accepts security update notifications on his Mac without being really sure they’re legitimate.

But he draws the line when it comes to e-commerce.

“I only buy from sites I trust, or people I know,” he said.

Martin Hellman, co-inventor of the Diffie-Hellman public key encryption, complained that the digital certificate structure isn’t robust enough, and is “unreliable” in its present form.

On the personal privacy front, Proctor added that he’s shocked by the intimate details routinely posted by 14-to-25-year-olds on social networking sites.

“It’s almost as if it’s a backlash over the establishment’s concern over privacy,” he said. “Instead of protecting themselves, they’re trying to see how many people can find out about them.”

The panel also waxed pessimistic about the United State’s lack of broadly available high-speed Internet access, especially when compared to other nations. “Being No. 24 in the world in broadband is nothing to be proud of,” Proctor said. “We have every evidence to correlate robust infrastructure to new business growth.”

Stanford engineering professor John Cioffi, who invented the modem that makes DSL possible, said the Internet is also being strained by new technologies and the influx of video. He said, for example, that at least 60 percent of customers using DSL for IPTV get pixelation that produces less-than-clear video.

“But the packet loss is much worse for wireless,” Cioffi said, adding that he’s skeptical about the capability for Wi-Max or other wireless technologies to reliably offer broadband access to the general public.

Despite what he said is a preference for free-market solutions, Hellman said he thinks the U.S. may need a kind of public utility to make home fiber access broadly available — bringing the country, literally, up to speed.

But for all the complaints, the panel agreed the Internet is a remarkable, essential development. Said Metcalfe: “The problem is our [expectations] are going up faster than the technology.”

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