Paul Vixie, Internet Sheriff
Internet Hall of Famer Paul Vixie has a startling take on the people who created the Internet: They were “just a bunch of young rebels who didn’t like the phone company monopoly. They thought they could come up with a better way to communicate – and have fun doing it. For most of us, the Internet we know today was not even a gleam in our eyes. It was just a rebellion, really.”
It’s clear that Vixie is speaking with great affection for the “rebels” who are his peers and predecessors. Dissatisfaction with the way things are “is what makes progress happen,” he says.
Much of his own career has been devoted to taking down those who would interfere with the Internet’s progress. His passion for that is reflected in the way he speaks, like a sheriff in the Wild West, of the “Good Guys” and the “Bad Guys.”
He has always had a fine contempt for the Bad Guys who abuse the Internet. In 1998, Vixie created the first anti-spam company, MAPS (Mail Abuse Prevention System), with the goal of stopping email abuse. And in 2013, he founded (and is CEO of) Farsight Security, which is dedicated to securing the world's digital infrastructure by ensuring that “everyone who’s trying to make the Internet safer has the tools they need to do that.”
Vixie believes that a major obstacle to corralling Internet criminals today, in a way, is capitalism itself.
“Don’t get me wrong; I’m a capitalist,” he says. “I want to make money. But I also want to make a difference. Some Internet-security companies see their competitors as the enemy, instead of seeing the Bad Guys as the enemy. As a result, they don’t share information or strategies, and the big winners are the Bad Guys.” Farsight, by contrast, does indeed share the latest research on Internet security with other researchers, while never sharing personally identifiable information.
Ever the Internet Sheriff (albeit a capitalist one), Vixie sums up his philosophy with the words, “I’m trying to do well by doing good.”
Vixie appreciates that the way he personally fights Internet crime has changed over the years. “I’m in my 50s now,” he says, “and instead of writing code, I can do more good by driving Farsight Security’s business and technical strategy, blogging, and addressing groups of engineers at Internet security conferences worldwide.” And he has a broader perspective on how crime itself has evolved, as well.
“Long ago, if you were a crook and you wanted to steal somebody’s money, you did it by purse snatching or mugging or other on-presence crime. You had to risk being seen, tripping or having your path blocked as you ran away, being tackled by some good Samaritan or a nearby cop – and then even if you did get away, you had to risk that it was all for nothing because there might not be any money in the purse.
“Today when you’re online, if you want to steal, you don’t even have to be in the same country as that lady – and you can rob not just her, but millions of people at the same time.”
Vixie points out that even the Wild West needed to be tamed. “We need to start trying to get a bit of regulation where it’s needed, and even some treaty negotiations,” he believes. “When you’re building the Internet, you’re not thinking about regulations, because you’re just building a new way of doing things, and having fun. But those of us who’ve had a hand in the creation of the Internet don’t want it to be ruined by a bunch of criminals.”
Look out, Bad Guys.