Appreciated by some, taken for granted by many, the Internet is understood by few who use it. Underneath the ability to communicate instantaneously with people across the globe, conduct major business transactions with a click of a button and have the latest news and entertainment at our fingertips lies a vast landscape of data, unfettered by regulation, and spurred by competitive growth.
kc claffy, this year’s Jonathan B. Postel Service Award winner, has been with the Internet from nearly its very beginnings. She’s watched its evolution from military project to government-funded point-to-point communication to its current iteration as a private sector behemoth.
claffy is one of the few brave scientists who measure the Internet. She’s leading the way to the future by opening our eyes to the layers of data beneath the surface along with the Center for Applied Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA), a group she founded in 1996.
“The work that we do isn’t easy to get funded because the Internet itself isn’t yet its own subject,” claffy said. “It’s even a struggle for the agencies to get funding, since infrastructure isn’t very sexy.”
Sexy or not, claffy has been measuring the Internet since the early 90s. The year she finished graduate school was the year the government decided to officially pull out of the Internet, which until that point had been a government funded project. It was 1994.
“That was the end of the data, so I started a corporation to try to have a place for Internet data sharing and data analysis, thinking maybe some people would want to share their numbers,” she said. “I was really interested in a field of science for the Internet when all the doors were closing. I wanted a clearinghouse for data.”
Two years later she wrote the CAIDA proposal, and now, more than 20 years after that, they’re still at it.
“Frankly, I did not think I would still be here,” claffy said. “We just cobble this together from grants. It’s so hard to keep the money going, even for one body let alone 15 bodies.”
Of course, as the Internet has grown and changed, so have CAIDA’s measurements and responsibilities.
“The first question is what do we have? What have we built?” claffy said. “We can’t answer that because the private sector took over, and they don’t want to give up that data due to the competitive landscape. Of course, with the Internet’s usage today, it’s really like providing water competitively, but back in the 90s, letting it go private was a reasonable decision.”
As the Internet grew and shifted its shape, the ways to measure, organize and regulate it have changed. In fact, there’s been very little of any of that. The Internet has been allowed to grow unmeasured and organically since the government relinquished control. Up to this point, this has been good for innovation and progress.
“The Internet is so good today because of the competition in the market,” claffy said. “This is really just a lab experiment that escaped a little early, and we knew there were going to be problems but thought we handle them when we get there. Now we’re there.”
Through it all, claffy is working toward mapping and measuring the data, most of which is currently splintered between companies and countries throughout the world. The past few decades of Internet development are miniscule when compared to where we are going, claffy said. With the Internet of Things, the proliferation of fake news and media messaging, national security threats, and privacy violations, these measurements will be of vital importance in the near future.
“I want to make the world safe for Internet science,” claffy said. “The American people need better data—to understand what the Internet is, how it’s connected, and how the data is being used.”
Jonathan B. Postel was one of claffy’s heroes throughout her life, and, as such, she says this award is one of the highlights of her career.
“He was kind of the social conscience of the place. He was all about integrity and honesty, so winning this award is a huge honor.”
As for what claffy wants to be best known for?
“I hope what I’m remembered for, I haven’t done yet.”
Image credit: Stonehouse Photographic / Internet Society