He sounded the alarm about the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), arguing the group is poised to assume the role of global Internet cop.
“There is strong indication that the Internet will enter the picture [for the ITU]," Cerf said at the Freedom to Connect conference.
Cerf said the ITU is likely to try and lock in mandatory intellectual property protections as a backdoor for easy Web surveillance.
Even good-faith efforts at Internet policymaking should be viewed with skepticism, Cerf said, because balancing freedom and security "isn't something that government alone is going to figure out."
He criticized the Cybersecurity and Intelligence Protection Act (CISPA), legislation passed by the House to encourage companies to share information about cyber threats with the government, because it lacks "adequate constraints" on how the information is used.
But Cerf said he has the "optimistic belief" that attempts by hostile governments to restrict access will be circumvented by resourceful engineers around the world.
"If someone stops me from communicating, I'll find a way around it," he said.
Cerf also urged vigilante groups such as Anonymous to stop using cyberattacks as a means of activism, saying the hackings are counterproductive.
"I don't think lawlessness is our friend," he said.
Ultimately, there is a legitimate role for law enforcement on the Web, he said, adding that "it would be bad for us as a community to say … that all the good things outweigh the bad."
"That's not a credible position to take," he said.
Cerf said activists and regulators alike harm themselves by using terms like "cybercrime" because they suggest that "every bad thing that happens on the Internet is a crime."
"Some are just bugs," Cerf said, while suggesting a better goal for policymakers should be "cybersafety."