Berners-Lee pushes Congress on 'nondiscriminatory' Web

Web father says his invention should never be controlled by a single entity, but declines to endorse a specific Net neutrality bill.
Written by Anne Broache, Contributor
WASHINGTON--World Wide Web father Tim Berners-Lee told politicians on Thursday that it's critical to shield his seminal innovation from control by a single company or country.

A top priority for policymakers going forward must be "making sure the Web itself is the blank sheet, the blank canvas, something that does not constrain the innovation that's around the corner," the knighted engineer told a U.S. House of Representatives panel that writes Internet and telecommunications laws.

Tim Berners-Lee Tim Berners-Lee

That means ensuring anyone can use the Web regardless of what software or hardware they're running, which Internet service provider supplies their connection, which language they speak, and what disabilities they have, Berners-Lee said. He was the sole witness invited to speak at a hearing here titled "The Future of the World Wide Web," the first of a series of events designed to keep politicians up to speed on communications issues.

Although he has previously voiced support for Net neutrality, Berners-Lee on Thursday stopped short of taking a position on the various bills on that topic proposed in Congress in the past year.

"I can say I feel that a nondiscriminatory Internet is very important for a society based on the World Wide Web," he said. "I think that the communications medium is so important to society that we have to give it a special treatment."

Proponents of Net neutrality define the concept as prohibiting network operators, such as Verizon and Comcast, from being allowed to charge content companies like Google and Amazon.com extra fees for prioritization. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who arranged the hearing, was among the chief sponsors of a legislative proposal last year that would put that mandate into law.

Perhaps in a nod to the issue's divisiveness, with Republicans tending to reject the idea of new laws, Markey on Thursday issued a disclaimer to his colleagues. "Before end of year, we're going to hear from all sides on that issue so that everyone's perspective is heard," he said.

Berners-Lee was largely greeted with awe and accolades from the politicians who showed up for the day's hearing. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said he considered the World Wide Web consortium director one of the rare individuals who has "truly made the world a different and better place" and proclaimed it an honor to be in the same room with him.

Berners-Lee's views on digital rights management (DRM) technology drew questioning, however, from Rep. Mary Bono (R-Calif.), who was once married to singer-turned-Congressman Sonny Bono. Berners-Lee, who emphasized a belief in offering standardized technology on a royalty-free basis, referred in his written statement to Apple's "closed, non-standard technology for its copy protection" as an example of a factor that has inhibited the company's online music sales growth. Apple CEO Steve Jobs himself recently suggested abandoning the approach.

"How would creators be compensated in a world free of DRM?" Bono asked him.

Berners-Lee said a better approach would be to devise software capable of tracking whether a person owns a particular file. "It won't stop you, but it will let you know if you're playing music you shouldn't listen to because you backed up someone else's machine and you got access to it," he said.

"Is that not the equivalent of having the speed limit but no enforcement of the speed limit?" Bono replied.

Berners-Lee suggested closed DRM regimes were akin to enforcing a speed limit by requiring the offending car to "grind to a halt" and added, "I am inclined to try to make software that allows you to do the right thing first."

Editorial standards