David D. Clark

This Internet pioneer wants to help users have better experiences online.

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When the American Academy of Arts and Sciences decided to explore the complex issues of security and privacy in cyberspace for its academic journal Daedalus, it tapped Internet pioneer David D. Clark to serve as guest editor. Clark's credentials certainly made him a worthy selection. He has been involved in the development of the Internet since the 1970s and served as chief protocol architect and chair of the Internet Activities Board from 1981 to 1989.

Today he's a senior research scientist at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His research focuses on redefining the Internet's architectural underpinnings. Clark, who in September received the Oxford Internet Institute Lifetime Achievement Award for his work, talks here about the Internet, its potential and problems, and its future.

What do you see as the biggest benefit of the Internet? Hooking people together, intermediated by computing; hooking people to information, intermediated by a computer. In the early days, we thought we were hooking people to computers. I remember in the days of Arpanet, when email emerged, the people doing the funding said we shouldn't be doing something like email; we should really be focused on hooking people to high-power computing. But to me, [the benefit] is this intermediation of people getting to information and to each other. The computer is just the platform that makes some of this happen.

What do you see as the most troubling aspects of the Internet today? The Internet is a fairly general platform, so all kinds of things can happen there, including good things and bad things. The issue we're dealing with today is, how do we police and control the bad things without impairing the good things? This is a problem that has a technical engineering component but also has a very social component. The sort of fears that everyday users have of something bad happening to them -- combined with a sense that even if you're afraid of it, there's so much that's important happening on the Internet that you have to use it -- is an issue. And for some people, fear is a reason why they refuse to use it. We have to help people have good experiences and not bad ones.

You wrote about making the Internet "a hospitable place." Do you think it's inhospitable now? My answer really relates to the previous question. On the Internet, it's really hard to tell if you've done the equivalent of ending up in a bad neighborhood. It's hard to tell if you should be nervous about the experience you're having. At the superficial level, it's very welcoming, it's "Come to my website," but there's always a little bit of uncertainty as to what's happening, and it's really that that makes me think about it being an inhospitable place. It should be a place where you feel comfortable. For most people, it's a place they go every day, but I'm not sure how many of them feel comfortable going there.

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