Scientific American has proved an unlikely champion of network neutrality recently, a trend that continues with this eloquent, impassioned plea the inventor of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee. He starts with a brief, personal account of the first web site and browser, then outlines the concerns arising so many years later.
The Web as we know it, however, is being threatened in different ways. Some of its most successful inhabitants have begun to chip away at its principles. Large social-networking sites are walling off information posted by their users from the rest of the Web. Wireless Internet providers are being tempted to slow traffic to sites with which they have not made deals. Governments—totalitarian and democratic alike—are monitoring people’s online habits, endangering important human rights.
The full article is six pages long but well worth the read. He pulls together and clearly explains arguments others have made piecemeal, from the how openness fosters innovation to the key qualities the connected but decentralized nature of the web enables. He also clarifies a confusion many people propagate, that the web and the internet are one and the same. There is good reason, not mere pedantry, for continually making the distinction clear.
Manufacturers can improve refrigerators and printers without altering how electricity functions, and utility companies can improve the electrical network without altering how appliances function. The two layers of technology work together but can advance independently. The same is true for the Web and the Internet. The separation of layers is crucial for innovation. In 1990 the Web rolled out over the Internet without any changes to the Internet itself, as have all improvements since. And in that time, Internet connections have sped up from 300 bits per second to 300 million bits per second (Mbps) without the Web having to be redesigned to take advantage of the upgrades
His plea then expands to human rights, as they translate into online spaces. Think network neutrality and freedom from surveillance. That is an appropriate turn, I think, when he’s making arguments about openness for other reasons. One could characterize his points about innovation as also being forms of freedom, just less obvious.
Keep in mind that Berners-Lee could have made many fortunes over, arguably, by locking up his invention behind the usual intellectual monopolies. His actions around that original invention demonstrate the continued devotion to the principles animating this current plea.
Long Live the Web, Scientific American