We Talked About Refrigerators with Vint Cerf, Father of the Internet

On encryption, digital divide, the internet of shit and more.

Matthew Braga

Matthew Braga

The internet was once described by International Telecommunications Union secretary general Dr. Pekka Tarjanne as "a haven for pornographers, terrorists and hackers."

That was in 1995. Some things, it seems, never change.

In fact, a scan of tech headlines today is like a time-warp into yesteryear. Encryption? Debates on limiting such protections were rife in the 1990s, and we're still fighting about it today. Censorship? Foreign governments were trying to stifle the internet's rising tide, even in its earliest days, and such attempts haven't gone away. AOL may not be much of an ISP these days, but we're still trying to get America online.

Even Newsweek, in 1994, presaged the looming computerization of the appliances in our homes, what we refer to today as the Internet of Things:

Look around your kitchen. Chances are it's full of computers. There's a little computer on the counter that makes coffee in the morning, a medium-size computer on the wall that zaps food hot in a microsecond and a large computer in the corner that dispenses ice and freezes out bacteria. None of these machines is called a computer, of course. They're named for their functions: coffeemaking, microwaving, refrigerating. But if they were manufactured in the last decade or so, they could use much of the same electronic brainpower as that box with a screen on top that sits on your desk.

A frequent voice quoted in many of the articles on such topics in the 1990s was an engineer by the name of Vint Cerf. While at Stanford University in the 1970s, Cerf co-invented some of the technologies and standards that underpinned the creation of the internet, and are still in use today. In the years that followed, Cerf became an envoy for the internet's growing popularity, and the burgeoning growth of the web.

Cerf was quoted on everything from encryption—"the internet will be weak and vulnerable because of the restrictions recently placed on the export of encryption software," reads a 1998 press release from Cerf's Internet Society—to looming state censorship in countries such as China. "'It just isn't possible,' to keep things away from Net viewers," he told the Boston Globe that same year.

In September, Motherboard sat down with Cerf, now Google's chief internet evangelist, at a charity event benefitting the Canadian Hearing Society. We spoke with Cerf about data breaches, the Internet of Things, and how companies such as Google are working on new initiatives to close the digital divide—things that Cerf has been speaking about for years, but never really seem to go out of season.

If history is any indication, we'll be asking the same questions in another ten years.