Tim Berners-Lee on net neutrality: it’s needed for free markets, democracy and science

Only one person can start an article like this,

The world wide web went live, on my physical desktop in Geneva, Switzerland, in December 1990.

That’s Tim Berners-Lee, and after that succinct explanation of why he knows a thing or two about the web he goes on in a piece for Scientific American to to talk about the importance of net neutrality – a topic on which there have been mixed signals coming out of the Conservative Party at times:

Net neutrality maintains that if I have paid for an Internet connection at a certain quality, say, 300 Mbps, and you have paid for that quality, then our communications should take place at that quality. Protecting this concept would prevent a big ISP from sending you video from a media company it may own at 300 Mbps but sending video from a competing media company at a slower rate. That amounts to commercial discrimination. Other complications could arise. What if your ISP made it easier for you to connect to a particular online shoe store and harder to reach others? That would be powerful control. What if the ISP made it difficult for you to go to Web sites about certain political parties, or religions, or sites about evolution?

Unfortunately, in August, Google and Verizon for some reason suggested that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phone–based connections. Many people in rural areas from Utah to Uganda have access to the Internet only via mobile phones; exempting wireless from net neutrality would leave these users open to discrimination of service. It is also bizarre to imagine that my fundamental right to access the information source of my choice should apply when I am on my WiFi-connected computer at home but not when I use my cell phone.

A neutral communications medium is the basis of a fair, competitive market economy, of democracy, and of science. Debate has risen again in the past year about whether government legislation is needed to protect net neutrality. It is. Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved.

The full piece ranges over several other topics too and is well worth a read.

Hat-tip: Mary Reid

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5 Comments

  • Leviticus18_23 28th Nov '10 - 11:57am

    The Conservatives will do what ever makes business happy. The LibDems will doubtless roll over and do the same.

  • Why shouldn’t information access be a fundamental right? Isn’t the ability to find and retrieve information — about, say, governments, laws, planning and regulations, politicians, platforms, policies, and history — a prerequisite to making informed choices, and therefore to liberty in general? If a small group of people have control over your access to information, then they can control what choices you make and who gets into power. You can see how vastly and irresponsibly this power can be used — in America, for instance. I’d venture to say that the right to have access to information is just as fundamental as the rights of life, liberty, and personal security.

  • Darren Reynolds 29th Nov '10 - 3:30pm

    Abandoning net neutrality is akin to having your telephone company making it harder to ring certain numbers, e.g. by restricting call capacity or quality. It is akin to the Post Office delaying post to or from certain companies – or, indeed, as Berners-Lee points out, from certain political parties.

    If those older organisations tried to pull tricks like that you can be sure the world would have something to say about it.

    The only thing protecting the ISPs is that most people don’t readily make that comparison. It is a comparison they need to make.

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