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Robert Kahn on the Net, wireless and copyright infringement

Robert Kahn is said to be one of the fathers of the Internet. He and Vinton Cerf developed TCP/IP, one of the crucial steps that led to the development of the Internet. He says that intellectual property rights issues are among the challenges facing the Internet today and that wireless technology will have the biggest impact on how people use the Internet in the future.

Has anything surprised you about the evolution of the Internet?
None of us expected it to become as pervasive as it is. We thought of it as a research experiment when we began. Back then, there were no PCs, no local area networks, no routers and essentially one telephone company. At the outset, we saw it as something that would be used by 100 organizations that could afford the multimillion dollar time-shared computers. Once the PC became available and the phone company was broken up, there were more options. I'd like to say how prescient we were back then, but that would just not be accurate.

About Robert Kahn

Robert Kahn has been immersed in networking for most of his 40-year career. He and Vinton Cerf developed TCP/IP, one of the key innovations that led to the development of the Internet.

Kahn received both his master's and doctorate degrees from Princeton University and has taught at MIT. In 1972, he began working for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he launched and led its Internet Program. He has received many awards for his pioneering work.

Kahn left DARPA to found the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in 1986. As president and chief financial officer, Kahn has been developing "The Handle System," a framework for allowing interoperability between different information systems -- something those harried clerks down at the copyright office can't wait to get their hands on.

What technologies do you think will have an important impact on the future?
I think wireless will play a major role. The future of the Internet will be more about plugging in wherever you are, communicating with whomever you wish and accessing information of all kinds. Cell phones and PDAs are in the process of merging. Laptops are augmenting or even replacing desktop computers. We have much more computing power in portable forms. In time, most computing will become portable, especially if we find a better way to input and display data. What are you working on now?
One of my projects has been creating a registration system for the copyright office so copyright claims can be registered online. In the U.S., copyrights exist for the life of the author plus 75 years. That is almost two centuries. It's hard to imagine what it's like to manage data online for two centuries. It's almost impossible for the average person to read data that is, say, in a two-decade-old VisiCalc file. Companies move, and names and ownership both change. Very few companies are a century old, let alone two centuries. We need a more persistent way of dealing with data. I am working on trying to manage information as digital objects independent of location. What challenges does the Internet face today?
Intellectual property on the Internet is still up for grabs. We have to ensure that people retain ownership rights to their creations and that they are not deprived of their livelihood. People feel free to share other's creations with each other without any notion of the legalities involved. That was at the core of the Napster music industry fight. With peer-to-peer file sharing, the situation gets more complex. The movie industry is also getting involved. It is not surprising to me that kids who are interested in hearing music or watching movies don't look at these issues from the artist's point of view. But as a nation, we need to find a way to deal with that while remaining cognizant of the need for creators of intellectual property to enforce their rights so they can earn a living. What do you see for the future of the Internet?
That's about as broad a question as you can ask. You might as well ask about the world economy and the future in general. I'm hopeful that we will continue to find ways to use the Internet to improve productivity, to increase efficiency in business and to invoke new forms of creativity. I hope it will continue to break down walls of geography, for example, enabling people in other countries to access up-to-date health information. But who knows what will actually happen. Stick around.

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