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Timeline Update: Why TCP/IP Is Inherently Political, According to Vint Cerf, One of Its Inventors

BY Micah L. Sifry | Wednesday, August 15 2012

Since yesterday afternoon, when we launched the "Politics and the Internet" timeline here at techPresident, we've been getting emails and tweets suggesting additions and corrections. So, I'm going to start blogging the changes as we make them, starting with this one, and we're going to compile those changes on this page, as the timeline grows. This morning I got an email from Vint Cerf, suggesting that we add the invention of TCP/IP to the timeline. The Transmission Control Protocol and the Internet Protocol are core to the architecture of the internet, and enable computers to reliably move bits around the network, using a technique called packet-switching.

I wrote him back right away (it's not every day you hear from one of the Internet's founding fathers!), telling him that I was happy to make the addition and adding,

"The reason I didn't initially is this is meant to be a political history--the ways that tech has affected politics--not a technological history of the internet. And there are many seminal tech events that added up to the internet and later to the web, but I was trying not to overload a non-technically oriented reader with those details. 

Steve Crocker is there, for example, not because of his work at UCLA wiring the first node of ARPANET (something he just wrote an essay for techPresident about), but because the RFC [Requests for Comments] method that he accidentally began represents the beginning of the tradition, or rather institutionalization, of an open, collaborative, highly democratic and meritocratic culture--and that culture presents a profound and important challenge to more closed and hierarchical ways of making decisions. These values were embedded very early and then later "codified" by David Clark when he described the IEEE's [Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers] ethos as "rough consensus and running code."

So my thinking about including the development of TCP/IP would be to find a way to describe it not just as an elegant engineering solution to a difficult problem but also as a challenge to the centralized power of the telephone companies--as enabling the rise of the stupid network, to use our mutual friend David Isenberg's phrase.

Here's Cerf's response, explaining why the architecture of the internet is inherently political:

The design of the internet architecture is captured in the TCP and IP protocols. It confers equality on all interlocutors on the network (a supercomputer is treated as equal to a laptop from the protocol point of view). This means that peer-to-peer was built into the network from the beginning and was kind of rediscovered with Napster, Skype, Bit-torrent, etc. The end devices did not and do not need to know about the topology of the Internet, the number of networks involved, the exact path of packets, etc. There is decoupling throughout the system because it is layered and this has given the system remarkable ability to absorb new technology and to allow what we call "permissionless innovation" - just do it. I think that has significant political implications.

Indeed it does!