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Berners-Lee Speaks Out on Net Neutrality, Dark Net

By John Markoff

Tim Berners-Lee was a software programmer working at the CERN physics research laboratory in Switzerland in the 1980s when he proposed the idea of a project based on hypertext — linking documents with software pointers.

The World Wide Web went online in 1991 and rapidly grew beyond the physics community. In 1994, Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to promote open standards on the Internet. Earlier this year, he began speaking out in favor of “Net neutrality.” The term describes one side in the debate in the United States over whether Internet service providers should be able to control the order in which they route packets of data — or even be able to reject those packets — or whether they should be required to be neutral on the matter.

For example, in some cases ISPs have restricted the routing of services provided by competitors like Internet phone calls. He answered questions earlier this month by telephone from Cambridge, Mass.

Q: Why did you decide to speak out on Net neutrality?

A: I have had an opinion on Net neutrality since I mentioned it in a book — effectively, but not by that name — a long time ago. It’s not a new opinion and it’s one thing that is shared by such a huge majority, if you like an unwritten assumption of the entire Internet culture. Someone actually thought to challenge it.

Q: Do you think you would be able to invent the Web today, given the barriers that are emerging?

A: You have to imagine the Net without the Web. I think I would be able to invent it today, but if we lose Net neutrality, then imagine a world in which it’s much more difficult to invent the Web.

Q: Is your view that the anti-Net neutrality infrastructure actually threatens political democracy? Does it go beyond just the technical structure of the Internet?

A: Net neutrality is one of those principles, social principles, certainly now much more than a technical principle, which is very fundamental. When you break it, then it really depends how far you let things go. But certainly I think that the neutrality of the Net is a medium essential for democracy, yes — if there is democracy and the way people inform themselves is to go onto the Web.

Q: So there are political consequences. Are there are also economic consequences? If so, what are they?

A: I think the people who talk about dismantling — threatening — Net neutrality don’t appreciate how important it has been for us to have an independent market for productivity and for applications on the Internet.

Now, if we compare what you can get into your home with earliest modems, it’s maybe 1,000 times as fast. So that market has been very competitive, very successful.

And I think we wouldn’t have seen this explosion in the exciting, tremendous diversity of the kind of things you see on the Web now. So in the future, obviously, we expect to see many more things. We expect to see, very importantly, television streaming over the Internet, which is going to make a very exciting market in television content and maybe entertainment, maybe educational ideas.

The people deploying these things rely on the fact that the Internet is sitting there waiting to carry whatever they can dream up.

Q: You wrote, at one point, that in the beginning, the data packets weren’t inspected. Now I see that many modern routers do packet inspection as a matter of course. Does this make it too late? Is packet inspection by itself a threat to Net neutrality?

A: No, I think there’s been some muddying the waters. Of course, if you’re carrying high-resolution video, then you have to treat those packets, for example, differently from packets for chat sessions.

So routers have to be smarter, and they are, to provide this very high functionality that we’re asking of them now. Sometimes this involves looking inside the packet. And unfortunately we’re also getting to the point where routers have to be able to protect themselves against malicious denial-of-service attacks and so on.

Meanwhile, the government is asking people to put snooping apparatus in routers, so there are all kinds of reasons why routers are starting to become smarter.

That is not an excuse for changing the terms of service of the Internet. The fundamental thing about the Internet is that I connect to the Internet with a certain quality of service — whether it is video- or audio-capable or whatever. If you’ve connected with the same form of service, then you and I can connect at that level. So if we have both paid for bidirectional, high-definition television, then you and I will also be able to exchange television broadcasts across the Internet. We shouldn’t have to negotiate. So the fundamental thing we’re talking about here is the deal between the user of the Internet and their Internet service provider.

Q: You’ve spoken about the concept of a Dark Net, which would balkanize the Internet. Do you have a nightmare scenario?

A: In the long term, I’m optimistic because I think even if the United States ends up faltering in its quest for Net neutrality, I think the rest of the world will be horrified, and there will be very strong pressure from other countries who will become a world separate from the U.S., where the Net is neutral. If things go wrong in the States, then I think the result could be that the United States would then have a less-competitive market where content providers could provide a limited selection of all the same old movies to their customers because they have a captive market.

Meanwhile, in other countries, you’d get a much more dynamic and much more competitive market for television over the Internet. So that you’d end up finding that the U.S. would then fall behind and become less competitive until they saw what was going on and fixed it. I just hope we don’t have to go through a dark period, a little dark ages while people experiment with dropping Net neutrality and then, perhaps, put it back.

Q: There are a couple of intriguing technologies on the horizon, and I’ve wondered whether they will play a positive role in this debate. One is new wireless broadband technologies, which may compete for the Internet-to-the-home market. The power line is also a potential avenue of the Internet into the consumer marketplace.

A: I think anything that opens up the competition is clearly going to affect the systems that are more closed. I don’t know personally how much hope to put into things like power lines. And in a way, the Internet architecture does cry out against any form of restriction to it because it would just weaken it. And so it could be OK if there’s an alternative way of getting the bits.

Q: Do you have a view about the behavior of the telephone companies in this debate? Is this simply traditional monopolist behavior, or is it more subtle? Have you talked to them to understand their motivations?

A: I have tried, when I’ve had the opportunity to find out, to understand their motivations, but I can’t speak for them. So all I can do is guess. But my guess is that it’s not that this is a nefarious planned plot to take over the Internet by a bunch of people who hate it. What I imagine is that it is simply the culture of companies, which have been using a particular business model for a very long time. So I think there is a clash of corporate cultures.

Q: What do you make of justifications involving quality of service, which would give certain types of Internet data, like voice and video, right of way over other kinds of data?

A: They say, “It will cost us an awful lot of money for this quality of service, and therefore we will have to disband neutrality.” They’re not actually logical. Some people say perhaps we ought to be able to charge more for this very special high-bandwidth connectivity. Of course that’s fine, charge more. Nobody is suggesting that you shouldn’t be able to charge more for a video-capable Internet connection. That’s no reason not to make it anything but neutral.