Web Inventor Stands Up For The Open Internet

Tim Berners-Lee says ISPs must uphold net neutrality as they strive to manage increasing data on the web

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, has told Internet service providers that their plans for a two-tier Internet go against the principal of net neutrality.

Speaking at a round table event in Westminster on Wednesday morning, chaired by communications minister Ed Vaizey, Berners-Lee said that Internet users should have free and open access to all content, and that content providers should also have unrestrained access to customers.

“While transparency about traffic management policy is a good thing, best practices should also include the neutrality of the net,” he said. “The web has grown so fast precisely because we have had two independent markets, one for connectivity, and the other for content and applications.”

Web throttling and traffic management

For some time, Internet service providers have been exploring the possibility of charging heavy bandwidth users, such as Google, the BBC and Skype, for “fast lane” access to their content, as a way to mitigate the cost of transferring large volumes of data over their networks. This would result in a two-tier Internet, where some services are faster than others.

“ISPs need to be allowed to adopt smart traffic management if they are to continue to deliver a decent Internet experience and this means they need to be allowed to – transparently, and with user input – accelerate certain traffic,” said Owen Cole, technical director of F5 Networks. “Certain services like Spotify, YouTube and Skype do need to be prioritised. Even a tiny delay in these services would result in an almost intolerable experience.”

However, critics say that this breaks net neutrality – the principal of treating all Internet traffic as equal.

At the start of this year, BT’s wholesale unit launched such a service – known as Content Connect – which uses Cisco’s Content Delivery System to let content owners deliver higher quality video to their customers, regardless of congestion caused by other traffic outside the Content Connect service.

The service has been criticised by advocates of net neutrality, who claim that ISPs will end up competing with the Internet for content delivery. “The result could be a fundamental shift away from buying services from the Internet to bundled services from ISPs: which would reduce competition and take investment away from Internet companies,” said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group in January.

Preserving the open internet

Berners-Lee has agreed to help the Broadband Stakeholder Group, which represents the UK’s larger ISPs, to establish guidelines to protect the open Internet. The Group this week published a code of practice that encourages ISPs to give clearer information to consumers about their traffic management policies.

“It is good to see that industry has taken the lead on agreeing greater transparency for their traffic management policies,” said Vaizey in a statement. “I am pleased that someone with the expertise of Sir Tim has agreed to work with industry on expanding that agreement to cover managing and maintaining the open Internet.”

Vaizey said that the agreement should be guided by three key principles: open access all legal content, transparent traffic management policies, and the absence of discrimination against content providers on the basis of commercial rivalry.

“The Internet has brought huge economic and social benefits across the world because of its openness and that must continue,” he said.

Vaizey himself has been criticised in the past for appearing to shun the principle of net neutrality, when he said that Internet service providers should be allowed to prioritise traffic from certain content providers. However, he later claimed that an open Internet was his “first and overriding priority.”