Think about it: The guy invented the Internet. OK, ever since Al Gore, we know it's not quite so simple. But Cerf, along most notably with Bob Kahn and Leonard Kleinrock, is widely acknowledged to be one of the fathers of the Internet for his early work on the earth-shattering innovation.
And now his baby is in peril. Next week representatives of the world's countries will meet in Dubai to debate treaty proposals that many Internet experts say could do serious harm to the open and free Internet. At the World Conference on International Telecommunications representatives of 193 countries are likely to debate ideas that could lead to increased censorship and surveillance and seriously slow innovation on the Web.
"This is simply another battle, but it is not the last," said Cerf, who is a vice president at Google, but they call him chief Internet evangelist.
He has been out there, to say the least, on the issue of whether the International Telecommunications Union, an obscure agency of the United Nations, should be given unprecedented power over the Internet we all know and love. He's written impassioned arguments that have appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere. He's testified before Congress. He's leading Google's own public relations campaign (#freeandopen) and he's called those who seek to shackle the Internet and those who use it as "dinosaurs" with "pea-sized brains," according to Reuters.
In fairness, Cerf was trying to explain how someone could come up with such backward thoughts about one of the world's most progressive inventions -- "These persistent attempts are just evidence that this breed of dinosaurs, with their pea-sized brains, hasn't figured out that they are dead yet, because the signal hasn't traveled up their long necks,"
I asked Cerf whether his deep passion about the issues had anything to do with his crucial role in developing the Internet. Did he feel some special responsibility for looking after what he had created, or helped create?
"The answer is yes," he told me. "That's why Google's campaign has my name on it. Because I'm willing to stand up and say we ought to fight for this and I feel that way. I've invested my entire career and so have millions of others, literally."
Cerf's deep concern about the latest international dust-up over the Internet doesn't stem from some vainglorious pride. It's bigger than that.
Some of the most pernicious proposals, he points out, threaten human rights, as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"There is potential for a massive expansion of the scope," he said. "This would actually give some counties the ability to reference an international treaty and begin to suppress speech and then claim, 'I'm only doing this because the international treaty obligates me to do it."
Proposals that would essentially charge Internet content providers for digitally shipping their content to other countries would strangle innovation on the Web.
"Nobody will ever build a new app on the Net because they can't afford it," he says. "It destroys incentive for innovation. It does all kinds of bad things."
And the proposals would seriously disrupt the efficient, but informal agreements among network operators that move traffic from place to place and allow the Web to be world wide.
"The fact that it is such a loosely coupled arrangement is exactly why it works," he says.
Despite all the potential for grave harm to the Internet, Cerf says it isn't clear that the coming world conference will end in disaster. He says he believes that it will take some sort of consensus among the many delegates to grant more power to the International Telecommunication Union. But then again, he adds, it's not exactly clear how it's determined whether there is consensus and precisely who it is who makes that determination.
Beyond that, this one father of the Internet says, you can be sure that the December conference is not the end of the debate. This are all issues we will all hear about again, no matter what comes out of Dubai.
Contact Mike Cassidy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5536. Follow him at Twitter.com/mikecassidy.