Internet Must Remain Neutral, Says Sir Tim Berners-Lee

I agree … but the tricky part is in deciding exactly “neutral” what means.

Access to data online must not be limited, founder of the world wide web tells Nokia World conference

Mobile operators and internet service providers must not be allowed to break the principle of “net neutrality” – that there should be no favouritism for connecting to certain sites online – Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, warned today.

He also said that low-cost mobile phones with a data connection were essential to ensure that the 80% of people who are not yet connected to the web could benefit from its ability to bring new information.

Berners-Lee suggested that concerns over privacy and the sharing of personal data will mean that businesses will have to improve their ability to segment the use of user-specific data such as addresses and where people are using their phones.

On net neutrality – which has become a major talking point in the US, especially as Google appears to have ceded the principle to some of the major mobile carriers there – Berners-Lee was adamant that it must remain a founding principle of the internet.

“Most of us work at a higher level,” Berners-Lee told the Nokia World conference in London’s ExCel centre. “We assume that when we look up a web address and the domain name to get that page that you can get any page because that’s how it’s always been.”

But, he warned, “a lot of companies would love to limit that. If they’re trying to sell you movies streamed online, they’d like to slow down your access to other people’s movies, so you’d come back to them. If they sell you telephone services, they’d love to block voice-over-internet connections, or just slow it down so you decide it’s not a very good technology and go and use theirs instead. They’d like to tell you where to buy your shoes by slowing down the service to one site but not another.”

In the US, the issue of net neutrality has been keenly argued over, with Google previously insisting it was a key principle for sites such as its video-sharing service YouTube: there had been fears that some US ISPs would seek to charge Google to make sure that service to YouTube for the ISPs’ customers was fast enough.

But Google has been criticised in recent weeks because it has appeared to accede to demands by mobile phone operators to give priority to traffic from particular sites. The company denied the claims that it had made a deal with the US mobile carrier Verizon to favour some Google content – though the wording seemed to leave open the possibility that the mobile area might lack the neutrality of wired services.

In the UK, the communications regulator Ofcom published a discussion paper on net neutrality in June – for which the discussion period ended on 9 September.

Berners-Lee insisted that a level playing field for all sites over all forms of transmission is essential: “If you let that go, you lose something essential – that any innovator can think of a new idea, a new data format, a new protocol, something completely novel, and set up a site at some random place and let it take off through word of mouth, and make a business, make a profit, and help humanity in a particular way and it takes off.

“Sure, you have to buy a domain name, but they’re pretty cheap. And once you have that you don’t have to register your server with anyone central. You don’t have to pay money to every mobile phone operator to make sure people can get your site. That’s really important.”

He added that the threat even comes from governments in some countries: “They would like to slow down information going to and from particular political sites.”

Berners-Lee, who is working with the British government to open up access to data from central and local government, said the mobile phone network would be key to bringing more people on to the internet. “At the moment the world wide web reaches about 20% of the world’s population. But 80% have mobile phones. Why is there that gap? That’s why we’ve started the Web Foundation – there are plenty of organisations dedicated to getting people fresh water, and getting them vaccines. But it turns out that the web can be really instrumental in getting healthcare to people.

“Not western-style healthcare, but the sort of thing that people need in developing countries. Sharing information about health, about issues like banana blight, or Aids – getting the message across about how you avoid getting Aids. Getting that information shared is something that isn’t happening now. These are all people who have a mobile signal but aren’t part of the information society, to tell the world about the crops they have for sale, or to go to Wikipedia and translate their favourite article into their own language, to blog. Not being part of the information society becomes really important.”

He called on mobile operators to make low-cost connections available in the developing world so that people could get online more easily. “If you have a mobile signal and you have a phone, and your $10 phone has a web browser, then it’s a shame if you go to your service provider and want a data plan – to connect the phone to the internet – they move you from a plan that costs $5 per month to one that costs $60 per month, because they think that because you want access to data you must be an executive! And there’s no in between. And the government decides that since you must be an executive, it’s going to tax you heavily too.”

The fact is that even small amounts of data are very effective for connecting people.

But he was dismissive of suggestions that text messages, which are widely used in many developing countries for money transfer as well as messaging, could fill the gap left by the lack of data plans. Each SMS contains a maximum of 140 characters, which Berners-Lee denounced: “SMS is the most expensive way of sending bits that’s out there. It’s very constrained. SMS for a developer is really hard, it would be nice to send internet packets. I’d like people enrolled in a low data package by default.”

He also pointed out that the explosion in location-based services such as Foursquare and Gowalla could lead to new concerns about privacy and control. “The whole privacy area is a big one. I think we’re probably going to have to think about privacy from a different point of view. When you work in many different roles, say within a company, you may see somebody’s CV with some information that you use in the human resources department, but you wouldn’t, you mustn’t, share at the office party. But you might find out information for sending me something but not for other use – such as my address, where I might want to receive a package from you, but I don’t want my address used for anything else. I think we’ll build systems to help organisations become accountable and to know what request the user had about how it would be used. We’ll build companies that will respect how it is used. We’ll have to have systems for tracking and passing all sorts of accountable systems.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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