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Vint Cerf: It's on all of us to fight online abuse, fake news

The father of the internet says social pressure -- people collectively saying, "This is wrong" -- is crucial to battling misinformation and harassment.

Vint Cerf at SXSW 2017
Vint Cerf speaks onstage Sunday at "An Internet for and by the People" during SXSW 2017.
Diego Donamaria, Getty Images for SXSW

Technology has advanced more quickly than social norms can keep pace, says the guy who pretty much invented one of the most widely used technologies of today.

That would be the internet, and the man considered the father of the internet on Sunday said that the burden is on us to catch up and to curb the misinformation and abuse running rampant online.

"This is a sociological problem in large measure," said Vint Cerf, speaking at the SXSW Conference and Festivals. "Our technology has outraced our intuition about its social consequences."

His comments came just hours after Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, published an open letter detailing his worries about the web, including problems like "fake news." Though harassment and fake news have been problems since the internet's early days, those problems have risen to prominence with the sprawling popularity of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and with the bitterness that flavored the US presidential election campaigns last year.

Cerf, who works at Google as its chief internet evangelist, likened social pressure against bad online behavior to the force of gravity.

"One solution is to say, 'Don't do that, it's wrong, it morally wrong,' which sounds weak," he said. "Gravity is the weakest force ... but when you get big mass, it's powerful."

At the same time, he said, engineers can be warned to think about how the technology they create could be used -- and misused -- though that may not be as easy as it seems. "It's hard to think your way through that, because people have this amazing ability to discover things you can do" with a technology, Cerf said.

"We didn't anticipate all the possible ways the internet or the World Wide Web could be used," he said.

Other ways to approach internet problems like fake news, Cerf said, is to build technology inside the system that would inhibit bad behavior, like cryptography and strong authentication, and laws, regulation and enforcement of consequences for bad behavior. But he said both those strategies have shortfalls.

Social networks have been working like crazy to find the right way to push back against abuses without taking too much away from the openness that draws people in in the first place. In November, for instance, Twitter unveiled yet another set of policies and tools for fighting hate speech. Last month, meanwhile, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg published a 5,700-word treatise on building better communities, hinting at the possibility of artificial intelligence working on our behalf to squelch hate speech, graphic violence and sexually explicit content.

Cerf also likened his unofficial title of father of the internet to being an actual parent of kids.

"Don't take too much credit when they do well," he joked , "so you don't take too much blame when they screw up."

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