Vint Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google and widely recognized as one of the “Fathers of the Internet” last week said that the issues facing the Internet today are as complex as they were pre-Internet.

Speaking at the SMX Conference in Santa Clara, Cerf discussed his concerns about the current state of the Internet and gave us a glimpse into his hopes for its future.

The Inter-cloud: An Extension of the Internet

While companies are competing to make a bigger, better, larger cloud service, fewer people are concerned with the basic mechanics of the inter-cloud and how we ensure that it all works efficiently, reliably, and securely.

“I’m seeing a possibility of inter-cloud problems mirroring the Internet problems we had thirty or forty years ago,” Cerf said.

According to Cerf, and many others, inter-cloud communication issues such as formats and protocols, as well as inter or intra-cloud security need to be addressed urgently.

Analogous to the pre-Internet period when Cerf along with Bob Kahn were finding a way of connecting the ARPANET to other independent networks, Cerf points out that today, cloud computing brings similar challenges. “You build these clouds and they know about themselves and they know about their own resources, but they don’t know about any other cloud. So the question is: how do you say ‘send this information to this cloud over here’ if there isn’t any way to call it,” Cerf asked.

And the challenges don’t end with inter-cloud communication. There are other issues to consider, such as security and portability, particularly with financial and health services turning more and more to the cloud. What metadata needs to move with the data in order to protect it?

One of the biggest issues people have with the idea of the cloud is loss of privacy. But, according to Cerf, privacy is relative. “Let’s suppose that our medical records are online and we’re in a strange city and we have some medical problem and we came to the emergency room. At the moment that you’re in the medical room, it’s very likely that the last thing on your mind is the privacy of your medical records. And the first thing on your mind is making sure the doctors in that emergency room have every piece of information they could possibly need in order to fix your problem.”

The caveat, Cerf explained is the ability to offer “finite time control over access to that information,” for instance, giving the emergency room a limit of 24 hour access, while allowing your primary care physician to have longer access.

IPTV and the Future of Advertising

With IPTV, Cerf explained, most people assume streaming is the way of the future, but he’s not convinced. “I’m still thinking that as we get higher and higher speed access to the Internet that downloading and playing back might turn out to be just as easy and perhaps more convenient.”

Comparing video to audio, Cerf pointed out that you don’t listen to music while downloading a song onto your iPod; you store it and play it back whenever you want.

This might in part explain YouTube’s recent announcement to test the viability of downloads from the site. Instead of being locked into watching something as it is being transmitted, which is what the classical television model is based on, today, we can store things and play them back; removing that particular binding in the television medium. Today, Cerf said, you can “shift time.”

But he also explored another possibility. Television advertising of old is invasive, and the tactics are stale. Commercial breaks are inserted into key moments of television in the hope of keeping the viewer from changing channels, a tactic he considers annoying.

“What Google has learned about advertising is that people don’t treat information as annoying advertising if they’re actually interested in the information,” Cerf said.

“In the search engine world we offer advertising information which users can select if they want to – or not – and we don’t charge the advertisers unless somebody actually selects to look at it. We have given control of advertising back to the consumer so why not do that in the video world as well.”

Using an example he warns may not be “technically sensible right now” Cerf discussed the possibility of a smarter, more consumer and advertiser friendly form of product placement.

“What would happen if we can sensitize an image so that if you were interested in it, you could click on it?” he asked. Taking this theoretical idea further, he continued: “Maybe stop the video entertainment at that point; a window opens up and says: “Hi I see that you’re interested in this little Macintosh that’s in the field of view; that’s the MacBook Pro. Oh, I see you’re online right now, there is an Apple store which is six blocks away that has six of these in inventory; would you like to buy this one right here?”

Dealing with the ‘Bit Rot’ Problem

“It’s conceivable that all the bits that are pouring into the Internet will eventually become rotten in the sense that the application that was needed to interpret the bits is no longer available,” Cerf warns of growing problem he’s taken to calling “bit rot.”

With the enormous growth of user generated content appearing on the Internet, and the variety of formats used when uploading content to the Internet, Cerf believes that there is a real need to determine a strategy for preserving the ability to interpret the digital information that we are currently accumulating for future generations.

“Imagine it’s the year 3000 and you’ve just done a Google search and you turn up a 1997 PowerPoint file, and you’re running Windows 3000,” Cerf explained, “The question is, does it know how to interpret the PowerPoint file? The answer is probably no.”

In order to preserve this information according to Cerf, we need to find ways of preserving application software, operating systems and even potentially the emulation of the hardware so the application knows how to interpret this.

“I visited the library of Alexandria in January this year in Egypt,” Cerf said, “and inside that library are manuscripts that are over a thousand years old; they are still fully accessible.”

“If we don’t do the same [ensure data is accessible in the future], what will our descendants wonder about us and the 21 century? We’ll just be a big pile of rotten bits to them.”

As this article only covers a very small part of the discussion, we’ll provide a link to the video as soon as it is available from SMX.