Web creator's net neutrality fear

By Rory Cellan-Jones
Technology correspondent, BBC News

media captionSir Tim Berners-Lee: "It's such an empowering thing to be connected at high speed and without borders that it's become a human right"

The inventor of the web has said that governments must act to preserve the principle of net neutrality.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee told the BBC that legislation may be needed if self-regulation failed.

He has been asked by the UK government to negotiate an agreement on an open internet between service providers and content firms like the BBC and Skype.

Sir Tim would prefer self-regulation by the internet industry, but progress has been slow.

"If it fails the government has to be absolutely ready to legislate," he said.

"It may be that the openness of the internet, we should just put into law."

Net neutrality, the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally, has been a controversial issue in the United States and is now moving up the political agenda in the UK.

Two tier

Internet Service Providers have claimed that they need to be able to control the growing traffic online, and content creators fear that the result could be a two-speed internet.

Sir Tim said that he understands the need for traffic management but any move to discriminate between different content businesses would be a step too far.

"What you lose when you do that is you lose the open market," he said.

"What the companies gain is that they get complete control of you."

But Professor William Dutton of the Oxford Internet Institute warned that enshrining net neutrality in law had its dangers.

"Once you allow the state in, you open the door to all sorts of regulation of the internet controls on content creation," he said.

Sir Tim, who was speaking at the opening of the World Wide Web Consortium's UK offices in Oxford, said that internet access was now becoming a human right.

At the same time it was also a very powerful tool for either a government or a large company to get to control of.

He warned that this could lead to users being blocked from visiting sites that were not politically correct, or religiously correct, or commercially correct.

He also expressed concerns about the Digital Economy Act, passed in a hurry at the end of the last parliament.

Sir Tim said he was appalled at the way the Act, which includes anti-piracy measures, had been pushed through.

"We need to establish very strong checks and balances whenever there is power to disconnect somebody given to a government agency," he said.

The implementation of the Act has been held up after the Internet Service Providers BT and TalkTalk won the right to a judicial review.

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