Sir Tim Berners-Lee: Net neutrality is critical for Europe’s future

Introducing the guest blog by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, VP Andrus Ansip wrote:

I would like to welcome Sir Tim Berners-Lee in this first guest blog.

Sir Tim makes important and valid points on the issue of net neutrality and the need for establishing European rules so that it remains protected. I find his thoughts to be especially timely given the current debate around the Telecoms Single Market regulation.

I met Sir Tim in Brussels in November when we had a very interesting discussion about several issues, not only net neutrality.

I hope that his blog will be the first of many to be composed by guest writers. Here it is:

 

Net Neutrality is Critical for Europe’s Future

By Sir Tim Berners-Lee, Founding Director, World Wide Web Foundation

As inventor of the World Wide Web, people often ask me – "What’s next? What will be the next big thing on the Web"?

The truth is, I cannot tell. Why? When I designed the Web, I deliberately built it as a neutral, creative and collaborative space, building on the openness the Internet offered. My vision was that anyone, anywhere in the world could share knowledge and ideas without needing to buy a license or ask permission from myself or any CEO, government department or committee. This openness unleashed a tidal wave of innovation, and it is still powering new breakthroughs in science, commerce, culture and much more besides.

Today, though, a key element of the openness that underpins the Web and the broader Internet is under threat. I’m talking about ‘net neutrality’ – the principle that each ‘packet’ of data must be treated equally by the network. In practice, this means that there should be no censorship: the state should not restrict legal content from citizens, as guaranteed in Article 11 in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU. It also means that there should be no restrictions based on economic motivations. A packet of data – an email, a webpage or a video call – should be treated the same no matter whether it is sent by a small NGO in Ljubljana or a FTSE 100 company in London.

Maintaining this net neutrality is critical for the future of the Web and the future of human rights, innovation and progress in Europe. Research commissioned by the Dutch government in June 2013 showed that net neutrality stimulates a virtuous circle between more competition, lower prices, higher connectivity and greater innovation, benefiting all citizens, as well as internet companies large and small.

Yet, some companies and governments are arguing that we should depart from the principle of net neutrality. Until now, we’ve largely got along ok without explicit laws to protect net neutrality, but as the Internet evolves, the situation has changed. If we want to maintain and enhance the Internet as an engine for growth, we must ensure that companies providing access should not be able to block, throttle, or otherwise restrict legal content and services of their users online, be it for commercial or political motivation. Of course, it is not just about blocking and throttling. It is also about stopping ‘positive discrimination’, such as when one internet operator favours one particular service over another. If we don’t explicitly outlaw this, we hand immense power to telcos and online service operators. In effect, they can become gatekeepers – able to handpick winners and the losers in the market and to favour their own sites, services and platforms over those of others. This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day. Imagine if a new start-up or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers? This sounds a lot like bribery or market abuse – but it is exactly the type of scenario we would see if we depart from net neutrality.

These worries are not just abstract – net neutrality is already under attack. The Web Foundation recently released its 2014 Web Index, a study across 86 countries. 74% of Web Index countries lack clear and effective net neutrality rules and/or show evidence of price discrimination. In 95% of countries surveyed where there are no net neutrality laws, there is emerging evidence of traffic discrimination – meaning the temptation for companies or governments to interfere seems overwhelming.

The current landscape on net neutrality in the EU countries is a mixed bag. Some member states, like the Netherlands (which scores a high 8 out of a possible 10 marks on the Web Index), have already enshrined the principle into law. The Czech Republic, Norway and Denmark also rank well on the Index with a 7 where others, such as Poland and Italy, score only 2 out of 10. Enshrining net neutrality across the EU could raise the bar for the performance of lower ranking countries, ultimately enabling Europe to harvest the full potential of the open Internet as a driver for economic growth and social progress.

Binding net neutrality rules under consideration by the European Union (part of an omnibus proposal called the Telecoms Single Market Regulation) would do exactly that. The European Parliament made a clear and strong statement for net neutrality in their version of the legislation in Spring of 2014. Now it’s in the hands of the Council of the European Union to determine their position.

The Council is slated to conclude discussions around March 2015, but only if it stays high on the agenda of the incoming Latvian presidency. To keep net neutrality high on the political docket, tweet to the Latvian presidency (@eu2015lv) and let them know that citizens and business in the EU need net neutrality now, before online discrimination becomes the norm.

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