Dave Farber, Grandfather of the Internet



farberDAVE FARBER IS ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST distinguished computer scientists, with a career that includes enormous contributions to the field of networking and computer science. Recently, HTF Founder Richard Bennett sat down with Farber to discuss his career and his thoughts on the future of computing and where the Internet is going. Farber and Bennett had a long discussion ranging nearly two hours, and we encourage everyone interested in the history and future of computing to listen to the podcasts! Here are four big takeaways:


1. The Internet used to be a completely trusted environment. Now it’s not. “We were friends!” Farber exclaims when asked about why stringent security precautions weren’t built into the original networks underlying today’s modern Internet. “This has been one endless research project; I don’t think anyone in the early days thought there was going to be a commercial application for what they were building — it’s a research project, see what you can build.” A lot of what they built, such as the email protocol, were “terrible” and “insecure by their nature,” Farber says. “The operating systems are bad, some of the hardware is bad, and so we are in a funny situation where we know that we have to fix things — and it’s not just patching here and there, but it’s going to take a major redesign of the whole bloody thing!” It’s the “next big problem,” Farber says: “To turn what we have into something we can trust, and yet not so centralized that we lose control.”


2. The personal computer, not the Web, caused the explosion of the Internet. “A lot of people will argue that it is the Web, but we’ve had the Web for a long, long time; the current one is not the first. I think it was the PC. The PC arrived, and there was this bunch of kids up in Boston who moved TCP code onto the PC in a reasonable way — suddenly you had a way of getting on the network that everybody could have in their home! And pretty soon, the commercial networks supported that.”


3. Computer science programs need to expand their focus. “The education I got had a significant dose of liberal arts as a requirement, and certainly helped at the engineering accreditation organization,” Farber says. “They have pushed liberal arts hard. You like to turn out educated people. One of the problems I’ve had in some computer science programs is the kids are so busy writing code for homework, that they don’t have time to get educated.” Reading Homer and Socrates is a “good thing,” Farber says with a smile. “It wouldn’t kill you.”


4. The current net neutrality rules could drastically hurt innovation. “It’s sort of like bringing a sledgehammer in to put a tack on the wall,” Farber says about Title II utility regulation of the Internet, which went into effect June 12. “This is a very rapidly evolving field,” says the former FCC chief technologist. “Evolving fields need experimentation, need trying things.” Creating a set of rules “based on a technology that’s over 150 years old – the telephone” – will likely impede technological progress, Farber says. People may find themselves being forced to go to the FCC to see if something is “reasonable.” That worries Farber “because places like the FCC are not built to do rapid response with rapid answers.” Regulation could slow down the ability for people to deploy new technologies and let the market decide what works and what doesn’t, Farber says, cautioning that “other countries” will just “go and do it and market it. And that’s what worries me.”