Berners-Lee: Congress should consider net neutrality

Tim Berners-Lee calls on the US Congress to protect net neutrality and also questions DRM in a House subcommittee hearing

Timothy Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, advocated that the U.S. Congress protect net neutrality and questioned the value of digital rights management Thursday.

Berners-Lee, speaking before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet in the U.S. House of Representatives, said it was "very, very important" for lawmakers to protect the ability of users to access the Web content they want regardless of their Internet service provider.

Berners-Lee didn't endorse specific net neutrality proposals largely supported by congressional Democrats, but he said the Web as a communications medium deserves "special treatment" to protect its nondiscriminatory approach to content.

While he was growing up in the U.K., there were high penalties for interfering with mail delivery, because mail was one of the main ways to communicate, Berners-Lee said. Now, the Web is a major communications medium worthy of protections, he said.

One company or country shouldn't control access to the Web, he added.

"We are a society only in as much as we are individuals communicating," said Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web Consortium and author of the first version of HTML.

For the past two years, many e-commerce companies and consumer groups have called on Congress to pass a law prohibiting broadband carriers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors or from speeding up partners' content.

In mid-2005, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Federal Communications Commission freed broadband providers from nondiscriminatory carriage rules, and net neutrality backers say large broadband providers such as Verizon Communications and Comcast will now be tempted to provide tiered speeds based on which Internet companies pay them the most.

Broadband providers and many Republicans have opposed a net neutrality law and efforts to pass one failed in a Republican-controlled Congress in 2006. Democrats took over Congress this year.

While Berners-Lee didn't hear a lot of opposition to his net neutrality comments at the hearing, Representative Mary Bono, a California Republican, challenged his assertion that digital rights management (DRM) copy protections could hinder the growth of some parts of the Web.

Berners-Lee called for open standards instead of closed DRM technologies. Instead of DRM, copyright holders should "allow people to do the right thing" by providing the information on how to legally use the material, he said.

Bono questioned if his idea would prevent mass stealing of copyright materials. "Is that not the equivalent of having a speed limit but not enforcing the speed limit?" she asked.

But Berners-Lee suggested DRM limits the market for digital music downloads, echoing recent statements by Apple Inc. CEO Steve Jobs.

"What is the enforcement for speeding?" he said. "The enforcement for is not that the car grinds to a halt. [Instead of DRM] I'm inclined to make software to allow people to do the right thing first."

But Bono said strong protections for digital content are needed. "With great respect to Steve Jobs, he's trying to sell hardware, first and foremost," she said. "I wonder if he would feel the same way about his patents being on the Internet free of patent protection."

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