Tim Berners-Lee On Network Neutrality


Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web, so to speak, weighs in on Net Neutrality.

When, seventeen years ago, I designed the Web, I did not have to ask anyone’s permission. [3]. The new application rolled out over the existing Internet without modifying it. I tried then, and many people still work very hard still, to make the Web technology, in turn, a universal, neutral, platform. It must not discriminate against particular hardware, software, underlying network, language, culture, disability, or against particular types of data.

The Internet is increasingly becoming the dominant medium binding us. The neutral communications medium is essential to our society. It is the basis of a fair competitive market economy.

More than anyone, I think it is time for start-ups and their backers to take stock of what the loss of network neutrality would mean to their business. Win or lose, this one has business implications, more so for many of the smaller corporate citizens.



Concerns about search engines are very important, but the issue of network neutrality also impacts IP based voice and video services.

The cable and Telco are rationalizing their major capital investments in fiber to the home/ neighborhood, with a “triple” play business model. This means they want to capture my expenditures for voice, video and internet.

Today I use Vonage, Skype, TiVo to Go, Sling TV. My use of those services runs counter to the Telco / Cable business model and they will stop if they can. They will stop it by making sure that “standard” internet service will not support these service and they will do it by using packet inspection engines like Narus http://www.narus.com. If I want an Internet feed that supports services they feel are competitive to their business model, I will have to pay a premium. They are not bad people; as Donald Trump says, “ its just business”.

The reason we have somewhat competitive DSL is a lot of energy was spent in the ‘80’s opening the copper plant to other service providers. Because the local loop was build as a regulated utility, the government had leverage to force unbundling.

But with the Telco and cable companies building their own fiber plants that leverage will not exist. In fact, with the brand X decision, the courts have already adjudicated that if a private company builds it, that company owns it and can do as they like.

I think a visionary approach would be for cities / local communities to prevent this scenario from unfolding by laying government owned fiber (think roads) and lease access to that fiber in a non discriminatory manner to anyone who wants to be a service provider. Further, to assure they get tenants, these governments should deny allowing anyone else to run dark fiber. These projects could be financed with long term bonds.

The only problem with this approach is it is illegal (at the federal and often state level) for cities to prohibit private builds. As I understand the rational for the law, it was to prevent a single carrier from gaining access to residence. But if the government had plenty of dark fiber (and agreed to pull more if they ever ran out) then I think the intent of the law would be met. But I am sure it would take lobbying effort that only Google could counter to stop the ILECs and cable companies.

So unless the law is changed, cities would have “a field of dreams” … they build it, but the ILECs and the Cable companies chose to build their own. Why? Because these companies do not want to be just transporters. They want to be content, transporters and to own the roads. They think their future depends on it. I think our future depends on not letting it unfold this way.

Jesse Kopelman

Angus, whether or not the government should build networks themselves was last years argument. Just like with Net neutrality, it was never really resolved. In the end that may be the best we can hope for — endless wrangling so that even if nothing good happens, nothing bad will happen either. This is the same logic that says you want the Executive and Legislative Branchs controlled by different political parties.

Angus McDonald

Basically there are two questions, and if I was to give my own answers they would be:

Q1. Should we allow telcos to construct toll roads?
A1. Certainly!

Q2. Should we allow toll roads to vary their fees based upon arbitary criteria?
A2. Hmmm … some criteria might make sense (prioritise VOIP for their own customers) but certainly not just anything! (Mac users go half the speed of Windows ones)

Basically this is likely to create a situation where the Net loses its simplicity. AOL tried to create a private internet network, like CompuServe did in the bad ol’ days … neither really worked when forced to compete versus the relatively ‘open’ internet. Going back to that paradigm won’t help Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0, and will basically create all sorts of weirdness (as commented on above).

Perhaps the government needs to get into the business of building internet ‘roads’ themselves? Then offer them for free?


Priority to people who pay for a premium service? An easier time hosting websites or services to people who pay more money? Someone needs to sit down and explain exactly how the proposals are different from current reality.I don’t think its terribly complicated, so let me explain it as I understand. Right now, you pay your ISP for access – say, Comcast. Google pays their ISP for access – say, Qwest. Any party with such access can send packets into the net and have them delivered, anywhere, with no restrictions. The many telcos that might handle the packets between you and Google are transparent to both parties. Telcos either pay each other to send their client’s packets onto another telco’s network, or have reciprocal sharing agreements. In all events, no one cares where the packets came from or where they’re going. Every packet is equal.

The controversy is that telcos want to be able to meter the network, on a per-customer basis, at every step – not just at the two ends. So if you want to visit Google, Google has to pay not only their ISP, but also your ISP and all the telcos in between. If Google doesn’t pay your ISP, or if Microsoft pays your ISP more than Google does… “Well, then, you know these here packets have a way of getting…lost.” What if you want to start a new web business, or a new blog site? You might have to pay “packet protection” money to every telco whose network your visitors might use. And hope that your competitors don’t pay more. What was once a neutral and level playing field, fostering free enterprise and free discussion, might become yet another “pay for play” game which only the rich and powerful are first-class citizens.


The real issue is “Ownership”.

How do we preserve equlity in a fully realized socio-economic society practising free market capitalism?

Have’s and Have Not’s are the norm.

When we revere the web network as we would our own neural network, and recognize the similarity for our communal species sake, perhaps then we can address what you own.

In a socio-economic environment, their is one thing better than “free”… ownership. Its just a fence line, but it changes life permanently.

What do you own as a human being?

What is the extent of how the world will profit from your existence?

When do the ideas in your head have socio-economic value?

When does your life have socio-economic value?

When you are born, what do you own… what owns you?


chucky… and rest of the gang. sorry for not posting the link. for some odd reason it did not show-up or whatever. it was late at night, and it is now only i am getting around to fixing stuff. sorry about that again. it is an error that shall not be repeated.


Just think what would happen if other business tried to do this
sort of thing for postal mail, airline travel, baseball seating, and
the like. There would be no end to the robbery.

And there is a very big difference. What would you say, if public roads were “managed” in this way. Say, GM would pay to have lanes reserved only for their cars, and all other cars would have to share the remaining lane. What would that do to the competition of car manufacturers? Would they till be competing for the best product? Or would they be competing for the best deal? I don’t think there’s any question on which market would work better…

Jesse Kopelman

John, you are missing the point. Net neutrality is not about saying you can’t charge more for better service, it is about saying you have to be transparent in how you price the service and you have to offer it on a non-discriminatory basis. The current system is neutral because you and I have the ability to buy a DS3 if we so choose. What if the carrier said, sorry I am only willing to sell DS3s to Fortune 1000 companies the best you guys can get is a T1? Or more on the point, what if they said to you: sure you’ve got a DS3 but you only get 45 Mbps if you connect to one of our preffered IP addresses, any other address you get 100 kbps?

John Thacker

“When you give up the only platform we have to communicate with each other on an equal footing — to the highest bidder, the freedom of all of us is diminished.”

Yes, it’s a real shame that I would have to pay more for a OC-3 line running to my house than for dial-up. Good thing that with current “net neutrality,” that’s not true, and I have just as big a pipe to send my data over as someone who is willing to pay a lot more money. Or whatever.

Priority to people who pay for a premium service? An easier time hosting websites or services to people who pay more money? Someone needs to sit down and explain exactly how the proposals are different from current reality.

Forcing resale of lines is one thing, I perfectly well understand that. But some of the claims about what non “net neutrality” would mean sound confusing and ridiculous. The Net is not created equal as it is now, not here or anywhere. People pay more for better service, better connectivity.

Heck, lots of people would like the opportunity to pay more for more bandwidth; other people would prefer cheaper lines because they don’t use as much. Heaps of evidence in other contexts show that one-size-fits-all; doesn’t.



Your unwillingness to link to the source of your quotes (not just in this post) make you considerably less useful in the debate than you could otherwise be.


This will clearly be the end of our democracy.

When you give up the only platform we have to communicate with each other on an equal footing — to the highest bidder, the freedom of all of us is diminished.

And you people out there worried about the regulatory authority of the government in determining “how the net works”, just remember that’s been the standard mode of operation until about a year ago when the FCC shirked its responsibility and said it would no longer require Telco’s to be “common carriers” on their DSL services. Such protections have been the norm until now.

Even if that weren’t the case, it’s easy to recall that when restrictions were lifted in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the inevitable conglomeration of broadcast radio & tv took place, the conglomerates pointed to the Internet as proof that there still was variety of opinion in the market place.

Lastly, when I hear “market forces should decide”, I just want to laugh. It’s precisely because there is no competition and because the Telcos are in a monopoly situation, that they can even think of introducing this scheme for bandwidth discrimination.

The only way you could get the market to work is if you required the Telco monopolies to allow independent vendors of DSL to use their pipes. Where this requirement for competition exists — say, in a number of European countries — the DSL is way better and cheaper.

Richard Bennett

What the carriers plan to do is to give priority to customers who pay them for a premium service.

Shocking. This will clearly be the end of our democracy. Just think what would happen if other business tried to do this sort of thing for postal mail, airline travel, baseball seating, and the like. There would be no end to the robbery.

I’m going to IM Dennis Kucinich about this fascist plot right now.

Carl Howe

The government already writes laws that say what you can and can’t do with the Internet. Don’t believe it? Try launching a denial-of-service attack against, say, the IRS. Or even Amazon.com. Better yet, ask for money to make it stop. The FBI will rapidly show up on your doorstep with appropriate warrants.

But for some reason, free market advocates seem to have a problem with preventing the carriers from playing exactly this same type of game. What the carriers plan to do is to give priority to customers who pay them for a premium service. All other traffic will be de-prioritized behind said customers. If there is enough premium traffic, that will constitute a denial of service to existing customers who have service agreements guaranteeing them best-effort delivery; instead, that will become best-effort-after-premium-service delivery. Of course, you have a way out: pay the premium rate, just like in the above extortion case. The only difference is that the carriers want immunity from prosecution — and in fact Congress’ blessing — for their denial of service.

Om is right. This is going to have huge implications for all types of businesses. The financial services and banking industry is just now waking up to the implications, and they may start lobbying against it (see the current Wired article for details). Let’s hope that the topic gets a real debate and isn’t just rammed through the Congress.

Zach Coelius

Great to see you again last night with Niall at Pakwan, hopefully we can send some advertising your way soon.

    I totally agree with you that the net has to stay neutral.  But I am also concerned about the idea of letting the government start to regulate how the net works.  It scares the hell out of me to think of all the damage politicians could do if they started writing laws about what we can and cannot do with and on the internet.  Even though we think they are just writing a simple law ensuring the telcos are unable to discriminate, who knows what they will do once they start drafting something. I have never see legislation without horrible unintended consequences.

   It seems like this might be letting the fox into the hen house.



Can someone please explain “network neutrality” in plain English?


Om, the WSJ has run several editorials backing non neutrality. I was wondering how you would respond to them. Their basic premise is that market forces should decide how the net operates.

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