How and why CIOs should support an open internet

Vint Cerf, Mei Lin Fung, and David Bray discuss the key initiatives of People-Centered Internet – and how tech leaders can get involved
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312 Week Business Vision Tim Elkins CIO Enterprisers

The People-Centered Internet (PCI) coalition seeks to provide support for two essential and complementary movements: First, it seeks to empower people through the internet and second, to help transform social institutions using the internet constructively – by working with businesses, civil society organizations, and innovators around the world.

[ See our in-depth guide to digital transformation for IT leaders, for advice on culture change, best practices, and related topics. ] 

We spoke with PCI founder and chairman Vint Cerf, known as one of the fathers of the Internet; cofounder Mei Lin Fung, who co-designed the earliest CRM system at Oracle; and PCI executive director and visiting executive at Harvard University, Dr. David Bray. We wanted to learn about the group's key initiatives, why CIOs should support PCI's mission, and how technology executives can get involved.

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): One of PCI’s missions is to put people’s needs and aspirations at the center of the internet. Why is it important for CIOs to care that the internet stays for the people, by the people?

Mei Lin Fung: A business is only viable so long as it has customers that want to buy its product. Having an internet in which people have the capacity to earn income and make those choices to buy is important because it’s difficult to operate in places where most people don’t have the money or spending power. Finding ways in which the internet can provide viable income sources, and places where people can earn money and create value, is critically important. Otherwise, it would be a diminishing pool of people who can spend money on the products and services that businesses offer.

While being customer-centric is enabled even further by the internet, tapping the global supply chain and developing that supply chain so you can get the best resources and talent from all over the world is just as critical. The internet offers the ability to tap talent in such a way that up to now was not possible.

Vint Cerf: Look at all the companies that have built themselves on top of the underlying internet infrastructure – Google, Amazon, eBay, Facebook, and so on. They were able to get started because they had freedom to access the internet. The global connectivity of the internet is vital to any company that is trying to use it to deliver or promote its product.

Companies that are currently dependent on the internet or wish to become users of the internet should want open access so other businesses can become customers, and so their products and services are not unfairly restricted. If a company brings up a new product or a new company tries to form and the rules of the game inhibit its ability to reach a potential customer base, then that company may not succeed. That’s why open internet is so important.

TEP: Can you explain some of the key initiatives at PCI?

Only half of the world’s population has access to the internet, so we have a long way to go.

Cerf: We have a great desire to do good and use the internet to achieve that. Only half of the world’s population has access to the internet, so we have a long way to go. Part of our interest is in helping to get more people online and to encourage policies and practices that would lead to that outcome.

David Bray: PCI is working with the Tribal Digital Village in the San Diego area to help them improve the infrastructure they use to deliver internet service via the Tribal Digital Village Network. The goal is to empower the community and let them decide how and where they want to have the connectivity occur, how they want to use it, and explore how it can help with education and job creation.

Cerf: Second, we want to encourage both the spread of internet access and applications that are demonstrably and measurably beneficial to the people who use them. Finding a way to measure those benefits is our aspiration for the moment.

Fung: The Internet was conceived and propagated on the promise of permissionless innovation. Our hypothesis that we are testing in Puerto Rico is that community-led initiatives enabled by frameworks, tools and applications, and networks of expertise, offers a more inclusive, sustainable, and trustworthy model that current approaches of concentrating primarily on individuals and infrastructure. There is human culture, structure and processes, existing assets in every community that we want to harness and support. It’s more difficult, but it's the way to have a human-centered evolution that allows all to contribute to a better future.

We’re working to help bring together support, expertise, and different organizations to assist in the rebuilding of Puerto Rico.

Bray: For example, we’re working to help bring together support, expertise, and different organizations to assist in the rebuilding of Puerto Rico so it’s more resilient, both in terms of power, communication, and connectivity, to ensure that future hurricanes are not as detrimental as this last one. When they lost power, they lost the ability to process financial transactions and money transfers. When you can’t pay for food at the supermarket, it underscores how crucial the internet has become in how we live our daily lives.

Cerf: In the long run, rebuilding that economy has all kinds of benefits to the United States. If there were a Marshall Plan for Puerto Rico in place, what might we focus on? Combinations of microgrids and renewable power could have a dramatic effect on the ability of the country to withstand future assaults simply by distributing the functionality rather than centralizing it. Those answers could apply to other parts of the world, including the U.S. – Houston, Louisiana and Florida, for example. Even if we only end up speculating about what one could do or might do in response to a Marshall Plan initiative, this thought experiment is valuable in and of itself.

TEP: How can CIOs get involved with PCI, and why should they consider doing so?

Cerf: Think a little about your business, the extent to which you rely on the internet, and whether it would be useful for you to become involved in the propagation of internet infrastructure or its improvement – whether it’s resilience or capacity reach. It’s very clear that in rural parts of America and in many other parts of the world, the internet doesn’t go anywhere because the infrastructure isn’t in place. How might it impact your business if it were more broadly accessible?

If your business is involved in either fundamental infrastructure or the provision of applications sitting on top of internet infrastructure, do you see an opportunity to engage when you look at some of these crisis situations? Setting aside crisis, would your business benefit from having more internet available and more applications that are demonstrably useful? What ideas would you like to share with PCI, and could you help us find partners to assist in that role?

Fung: 50 percent of the world’s market are women – and as the remaining 50 percent of the world gets connected, the diversity of the global market place is increasing rapidly. Yet so much planning, investment and policy is designed from the perspective of the people at the top of our current hierarchies. CIOs can get involved with PCI in our Tribal Digital Village in San Diego and our Puerto Rico Community Hubs and SuperNature Labs. Help your businesses prepare for a vastly different future. When thinking about the massive transformation happening to societies, nations, and organizations, there are two pictures that express the vast frontier ahead.

Bray: Imagine what you would do if you were without power and without internet for one month or more. That underscores the responsibility we feel to connect the rest of the planet and encourage an internet that is more resilient because it’s becoming a fundamental fabric of society.

The textbook for the future has not yet been written: It’s written by what we choose to do. While we all have our day jobs and our families, if CIOs, other C-Suite leaders, and positive change agents across sectors can dedicate just 10 percent of their time, energy, and expertise to making a difference in internet connectivity and bringing people together, that’s a world that our sons, daughters, and grandchildren will be better off in in the future.

Cerf: If you know of opportunities that we should be aware of, a connection that we should know about, if you have ideas and thoughts that you’d like to raise, or are interested in connecting with us, visit us at and leave us a comment.

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Kristin Burnham is a reporter and editor covering IT leadership, business technology, and online privacy and security.