Tim Berners-Lee On Net Neutrality: It's Important, But Now What?

from the where-the-conversation-breaks-down dept

teKuru writes in to point out Tim Berners-Lee's latest essay on the importance of net neutrality. It's a good read that talks up the importance of network neutrality, and how it has allowed innovation to flourish online. Very few people (perhaps other than telcos and their supporters) will doubt that. The real question, though, is the one that Berners-Lee punts on. He doesn't have a solution for how to deal with the question of telcos looking to end network neutrality. All he says is: "To actually design legislation which allows creative interconnections between different service providers, but ensures neutrality of the Net as a whole may be a difficult task. It is a very important one. The US should do it now, and, if it turns out to be the only way, be as draconian as to require financial isolation between IP providers and businesses in other layers." In other words, it's a tough issue and legislation could make it worse, but do it anyway? That doesn't seem much better than Senators saying that laws against file sharing networks may cause more problems than they solve, but they need to be done anyway.

This is a big issue that many people don't seem to want to dig in on. Those who are against net neutrality regulations say that the regulations will screw things up even more, but ignore the potential downsides to letting the telcos end net neutrality. Those who want regulation say network neutrality is very important and thus needs to be written into the law -- but ignore the potentially stifling aspects of bad regulations. The problem is that both sides then are talking about different things... and there's no one looking at if it's written into law, how can it be written to cause as little damage as possible and if it's not written into law, how can people feel comfortable that network neutrality will remain an option going forward? The real answer is that it would be great if there were a truly competitive market that would make it impossible for anyone to kill network neutrality, but the FCC has already killed that option off by giving telcos virtual monopolies on the lines and rights of way that the government granted them. So, perhaps the real answer isn't to focus on legislating (or not) net neutrality -- but making sure there's real competition in the market. In the meantime, it looks like the Markey amendment on Net Neutrality is back in play. However, as it's been turned into a partisan issue, it probably doesn't stand much of a chance.

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  1. identicon
    Julian Bond, 2 May 2006 @ 5:30pm

    Yeah, whatever,

    You know what? I've actually reached the point where I no longer care that the USA is being screwed by the ISPs run by the US Telcos. The rest of the world will just carry on as usual. The end to end principle and net nerutrality will continue to flourish in most places outside the USA. The US government has created a state sponsored and controlled "market" or more properly a monopoly. This has the inevitable side effects. If the state controlled "market" isn't working then the solution is to change the rules to encourage competition. The solution is not to leave the monopoly in place and then regulate what the monopoly players do. All the discussion I've seen about this tries to mandate that any one Telco plays fair. What I never see is anything questioning why there's effectively only one ISP in any geographical area. And that's because there's only one Telco in any one area and they are allowed to freeze out any other ISP.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous, 2 May 2006 @ 6:11pm


    Network neutrality already exists for telephone networks, power grids, roads, postal carriers (public/private), etc. Aren't there existing laws that prohibit the power grab that the big ISPs are trying for?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Yeah Baby, 2 May 2006 @ 6:55pm

    Second post!!!!!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    |333173|3|_||3, 2 May 2006 @ 7:20pm

    Other Countries

    There are laws about net neutrality in other countries, in South Aus. the ISPs Adam and Internopde have replaced a lot of Telstra exchanges at thier own cost and are now selling, over the telstra network ADSL2+ at higher speeds than telstra offer

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Mousky, 2 May 2006 @ 7:26pm

    "So, perhaps the real answer isn't to focus on legislating (or not) net neutrality -- but making sure there's real competition in the market."

    Hit nail on head.

    Net neutrality legislation is meaningless if there is little or no competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    nonuser, 2 May 2006 @ 8:47pm

    long distance battle redux

    This seems similar to the battle MCI waged over access to AT&T's Class 4 and 5 switches during the '70s and '80s, culminating in the breakup of AT&T. The telcos assert their ownership over the central offices and local loops, but their joint monopoly was established at the acquiescence of the US government, which demanded in return that AT&T's service and fees would be subject to heavy regulation. AT&T was also prohibited from entering other fields such as information processing, to prevent them from tying arrangements and other sorts of vertical monopolistic abuse. The regulations remained after the AT&T breakup, and were extended to cover long distance access fees, but somehow the line of business restraints on the Baby Bells were removed over time.

    Now we have decent competition in long distance, but the old monopolists are rattling their control over the local loops and tandem switches once more. The solution is the same as before - update the access regulations to cover broadband and IP traffic, and look at restricting the variety of businesses the baby bells are allowed to participate in. Congress should make sure the FCC commisioners do their jobs instead of sitting around picking out blue ties to wear on the news shows, like other administration appointees.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    nullsmack, 2 May 2006 @ 8:50pm


    I'd personally love to see some kind of new crazy tech that takes the telcos out of the picture or reduces their role. Give me some kind of auto-configuring UWB mesh thing that flies under the fcc radar or some sort of quantum breakthrough that lets someone link network cards together over long-distances using quantum magic and lasers or something.

    I have no faith in the telcos or the politicos.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    laceym, 2 May 2006 @ 9:09pm


    I think Net Neutrality is vital if there is little or no competition. With more competition, the user can decide which ISP to go with. If AT&T puts restrictions on certain web traffic, then users will switch to AB&C or XY&Z. Most cities in the USA have no more two choices, therefore Net Neutrality is neccesary to make sure the ISPs play nice.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    PopeRatzo, 3 May 2006 @ 3:50am

    I get a little crazy when I see people say "we already have net neutrality because I can post here via my mobile phone or wireless".

    They don't understand that the vulnerable parties in the net neutrality issue are the future techdirts and slashdots. Little guys who might want to put up a site a few years from now to talk about technology or (gasp) political issues, but won't be able to because the people who are already paying full fare won't want them to. Or even worse, they'll be able to put up that site, but it'll be harder to get to because it won't have access to the same speeds as the big boys.

    The beauty of the internet has always been that techdirt can be just as fast, just as widely seen, just as effective as AT&T or Microsoft. We definitely need an internet protection act to keep corporate raiders from doing to the net what they've done to national forests or wetlands.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous, 3 May 2006 @ 4:13am

    Not just telcos

    One thing I've noticed while studying history is that utilities in general, not just the telephone co.'s, have had too much influence on government across time. Granted, my text book didn't comment about the effect of anti-monopolization on utilities (or any one particular group in general). Despite this, I'm sure more competition would be healthy for many types of utilities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Michael Turk, 3 May 2006 @ 6:47am

    Net Neutrality And Anti-Trust Laws

    The problem is that both sides then are talking about different things... and there's no one looking at if it's written into law, how can it be written to cause as little damage as possible and if it's not written into law, how can people feel comfortable that network neutrality will remain an option going forward?

    The way Net Neutrality remains an option going forward, without the adverse consequences of bad legislation is for the Judiciary committee to get the referral they're seeking, and use that referral to rewrite the Net Neutrality Amendment. That amendment needs to remove the references to net neutrality as an FCC issue, and instead refer all complaints regarding access providers engaged in shady tactics to the Federal Trade Commission.

    The FTC already investigates and acts on anti-competitive activities. It is not clear, however, that they have the authority to engage those regulatory powers on telecom services. That needs to be made explicit. That would provide the framework to prevent predatory tactics without creating a new framework for existing laws to be applied through a different agency.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Mousky, 3 May 2006 @ 8:09am

    Re: Re:

    Don't confuse net neutrality with requiring telcos to open their trunks to competitors or with local or state regulations that favor incumbent telcos/ISPs. Why not just make it easier for competitors to enter a market dominated by one or two ISPs? Net neutrality legislation will do absolutely nothing to improve competition. It will just add another layer of government regulation that will slowly grow into a complex set of rules and regulations. We need less regulation and more competition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Gary Wisniewski, 3 May 2006 @ 6:42pm

    Net Neutrality is a red herring

    "perhaps the real answer isn't to focus on legislating (or not) net neutrality -- but making sure there's real competition in the market"

    You bet!

    I hate to even post and add noise to a debate which I think has become 100% noise. It's all emotion. Hating telcos has got people so blind to the issues that most reactions are nothing but idiocy.

    If you define "Net Neutrality" as "unprioritised, unfiltered, equal-access to all internet content from any ISP" then you know nothing about economics or markets. Or, you are arging against a free market system. Call a spade a spade and say you want socialized Internet access please. That's at least a focused discussion.

    Imagine any law that said "every store must offer every product consumers want without priority or price differences". That's what you're asking for. No retailer could survive. You wouldn't have botiques, brand-differentiated retailers, and you wouldn't have MONEY FLOWING according to SUPPLY AND DEMAND. That is the critical problem. If you don't see ISPs as a crucial part of the economic value chain then your view of the internet is dysfunctional in a free-market economy. If an ISP is forced to provide a channel for delivering high-demand goods for exactly the same price as it does for delivering low-demand goods then they are a dysfunctional component of the market.

    And that's probably why we hate them, because we've put them in a no-win situation and allowed their behavior to degenerate into what it is today. Instead, of figuring out ways to make the market work, an "us-vs-them" mentality is gumming up the works and this whole debate is part of the problem, not the solution.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Sam O, 3 May 2006 @ 7:34pm

    Is the USPS really a good example of network neutrality? Can't I pay more money to get my package to you overnight as opposed to standard delivery?

    The piece by Berners-Lee seems to only oppose the idea of walled or exclusive access. He does not appear to oppose the idea of tiered access for QoS issues like video and VoIP.

    TBL quote:

    We may pay for a higher or a lower quality of service. We may pay for a service which has the characteristics of being good for video, or quality audio. But we each pay to connect to the Net, but no one can pay for exclusive access to me.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    BillBraskey, 4 May 2006 @ 6:58am

    Re: Legislation??

    You just named a bunch of former and current government endorsed monopolies...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    lessgov, 4 May 2006 @ 10:45pm


    Well, perhaps there is a reason why people fear government intrusion on this issue. Does anyone reasonably believe that this will not open the door for special interests to have their way with our Internet experience? Regardless of what you may think of telecom companies, they are beholden to their customers, which is more than can be said for the government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    flander, 5 May 2006 @ 4:52am

    I'm with scifi and lessgov...I don't trust the telcos or big government...but I do trust the market. And since the vast majority of consumers have a choice of more than 2 ISPs (according to Jason Kowal, managing director of TeleGeography anyway), the answer much lie there.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Paulaner01, 8 May 2006 @ 4:09pm

    Lesser of two...

    For me, it seems that if we let government in the door, it will be much much harder to ever get it out. Let's keep Pandora's box closed - the market is strong enough to deal with any squabbles that arise, and if people are genuinely dissatisfied or their ISPs actually restrict their usage, there will be enough of angry consumers to make their voices heard. They'll either put a stop to it or take their money somewhere else.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    jeran, 8 May 2006 @ 7:32pm

    Re: scifi

    I don't think the technology you want is that far-fetched or that far in the future. Ten years ago most people I knew didn't have cell phones, let alone PDAs or high speed internet. Ten years from now, who knows what the standard data transfer rate will be? If the government is allowed to regulate the industry, you run the risk of stymying growth and slowing R&D in better technologies. The intention here is not to offer worse service to people who pay less, but better service to those who pay more.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. identicon
    flander, 9 May 2006 @ 5:30am

    Jeran is right. Innovation will be stymied by increased governmental regulation. I think that says it all...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    pkp646, 10 May 2006 @ 12:41pm

    Re: Other Countries

    That's true. There are laws in other countries, but everywhere they exist it is because of massive government suppliments to the industry to reduce costs which ultimately must be paid by the tax payer. That just un-American.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    AJ Carey, 10 May 2006 @ 12:43pm

    Not only will innovation suffer becuase of government regulation, but it will lead to much higher costs to the consumer, something no one wants.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    sagecast, 21 May 2006 @ 4:59am

    Readers of this comment thread should know that Paulaner01, lessgov and pkp646 look to be part of a tag-team of industry shills who invade blog comments on net neutrality to argue against any government regulation of the Internet. Other names who run with this crowd are John Rice and oldhats. (Google any of these names in combination and you'll see how their game works).

    By tag-teaming the blogs this small handful of individuals gives the false impression of broad popular support for an industry-friendly position.

    What they fail to point out is that Net Neutrality has been the rule that has governed access to the Internet since its inception. It's the reason that the Internet has become such a dynamic force for new ideas, economic innovation and free speech. What they really want is for Congress to radically re-write our telecommunications laws so that companies like AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth can swoop in and become gatekeepers to Internet content -- in a way that benefits no one except the largest ISPs.

    I'd like these people to tell us how it is that they appear together (usually one after the other) spouting identical industry talking points across the blogosphere.

    What gives fellas? Are you being paid? And by whom?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Mischa, 31 May 2006 @ 5:13pm

    Re: Re: Other Countries

    Un-American? Where did you get that idea? We have massive government subsidies to the energy sector right now. It's one of the things that keeps gas prices in the US so much lower than in Europe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Jacky, 24 Jan 2007 @ 1:16am

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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