Net guru predicts another 10 'wild' years

"Grandfather of the Internet" David Farber describes a future that will be "as wild as" the last 25 years, and calls for better legislation to guide the industry.

SINGAPORE--The Web is turning into a hazardous environment, and there should be more tech-savvy politicians in government today so that better legislation can be established, says an industry-renowned Internet guru.

"The next 10 years will be as wild as the last 25," proclaimed David Farber, distinguished career professor of computer science and public policy, school of computer science, Carnegie Mellon University. Often described as the "grandfather of the Internet", because his students went on to become pioneers of the digital medium, Farber was here yesterday to deliver a public lecture organized by the Singapore Management University's school of information systems.

He expressed concerns that the Web is developing into a platform that has the potential to do more harm than good.

The Internet has evolved from "something that you can do nice things with" to something which people can use to do "not nice things", he said. "That's worrying."

Hackers previously mostly wanted boasting rights of having discovered security loopholes, but they now seek out vulnerabilities for personal gain, he added.

"It is not a nice environment", he said, noting that security must therefore remain a key focus for the industry.

Legislation will also remain a primary focus for governments, which are struggling to cope with the nature of the Internet, Farber said. Things they could do before are getting tougher to do, he said. For example, there is no easy way to impose taxes in the United States for online transactions, when buyers can be located in different countries across the globe, he explained.

"Politicians don't like the Internet... they don't like losing control," Farber said. He also lamented the current lack of tech-savvy politicians in office.

"(IT-related) laws are being made and broken by politicians who do not understand technology," he said, noting the U.S. government as an example.

Tan Geok Leng, CTO of technology group at the Infocomm Development Authority of Singapore (IDA), concurred with Farber's assessment that politicians worldwide are typically not fond of losing control. Tan participated in a panel discussion which followed Farber's lecture.

But Tan noted that governments should also recognize that the Internet is a strong vehicle for communications. "So the government has to ensure that the quality of information (on the Web) is high so user trust can be maintained," he added.

Another panelist, Professor Lawrence Wong, executive director of Institute for Infocomm Research, Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*Star), noted another trend which he described as "the democratization of the Internet", where "anyone can now be a content creator".

"How do we then ensure the integrity of (each piece of) the content?" he said.

Farber noted that while it is not possible to achieve that, he would still champion for the individual's right to freedom of speech. There will be content that may be offensive to some people, but "it is a tradeoff I'm willing to live with", he said.

He noted that it is "a dangerous thing" to attempt to control the Internet. "How do you define what is unacceptable?"

Farber also highlighted how "wrong" it was for software vendors to prohibit researchers from looking at source codes and announcing any security flaws that are discovered.

"It's one thing to own a source code and another to prevent me from looking at it to secure my network," he said.

"Software vendors are saying that researchers should not be allowed to look at the source codes, or say anything (publicly) if they find a security flaw. Or otherwise the vendors would threaten to throw them in jail. And that's wrong."