To celebrate its 25th birthday, Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the Web — formerly known as the World Wide Web — called for a global online bill of rights to keep the Internet free and open.
Berner-Lee warned that recent threats to net neutrality in the United States and abroad has undermined the open nature of the Internet he created. Without rules to protect the Web’s independence and ensure that anyone can use it however they want. With his Magna Carta online bill of rights, however, users would be free from surveillance and discriminating policies.
“Unless we have an open, neutral Internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture,” Berners-Lee told The Guardian.
Net neutrality, the idea that all Web content should be treated equally regardless of who creates it, has been around almost as long as the Web itself. It first appeared in 1996 with the Telecommunications Act, in which Congress set out to ensure the Internet’s openness, just as it was emerging as a medium for doing business and sharing ideas. Their goal was to leave the Internet largely untouched by heavy regulations. Promoting such openness is why the Web succeeded in the first place.
But in recent years, Berner-Lee has seen his vision of the Web erode and succumb to increasingly encroaching government and corporate policies that limit the Internet’s independence. “I spent a lot of time trying to make sure people could put anything on the web, that it was universal,” he told The New York Times. In the U.S., the tangled relationship between the Internet and corporations has slowly chipped away at that vision.
“The removal of the explicit link to the U.S. Department of Commerce is long overdue. The U.S. can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national,” Berner-Lee said to The Guardian. “There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length.”
Telecommunications companies such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast have been fighting net neutrality, pushing for a way to monetize Web access — charging companies for faster access and slowing it down for others who can’t afford it — since the beginning. And with a federal judge throwing out net neutrality earlier this year, Berner-Lee fears the Web’s next 25 years could be overrun by telecommunications companies telling consumers what they can and can’t access.
Even though the FCC plans to restore net neutrality once again in some fashion, what started as a way to share information freely could become inextricably linked with commerce.
“The key thing is getting people to fight for the web and to see the harm that a fractured web would bring,” Berner-Lee said. “Like any human system, the web needs policing and of course we need national laws, but we must not turn the network into a series of national silos.”