Inventor Of World Wide Web: Gutting Net Neutrality Would Lets ISPs “Pick Winners And Losers”

Image courtesy of Paul Clarke

Earlier today, FCC Chair Ajit Pai revealed his plan to scuttle existing regulations for internet service providers and replace them with promises from the industry that they won’t do anything bad. It is all in the name of innovation, declared Pai, but the innovator who created the World Wide Web and the very first website, is calling the Chairman out.

The 2015 Open Internet Order, which would be undone by Pai’s proposal, prevents ISPs from having any say in what you do online. They can’t block access to content; can’t slow down access to specific content; and they can’t speed up access to specific sites or services. Those rules would all be removed, replaced with vague, non-binding promises from ISPs.

To Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who created the Web in 1989 while working at CERN, the idea that your broadband provider could have any say in what you do online is antithetical to the entire concept of the internet.

“When I invented the web, I didn’t have to ask anyone for permission, and neither did America’s successful internet entrepreneurs when they started their businesses,” says Berners-Lee in his capacity as founder of the World Wide Web Foundation. “To reach its full potential, the internet must remain a permissionless space for creativity, innovation and free expression.”

This is particularly troublesome following an era of consolidation. Comcast now owns NBCUniversal, meaning it may have an incentive to throttle access to streaming services run by competitors like Disney (ABC, ESPN), or to prioritize access to services like Hulu in which it has an ownership stake.

Similarly, AT&T — which provides wired and wireless broadband access to more than 100 million Americans — now owns DirecTV and the DirecTV Now streaming platform. It is also in the process of acquiring its own content conglomerate in the form of Time Warner (CNN, HBO, Warner Bros). AT&T is already making HBO available to DirecTV Now users at a rate lower other pay-TV providers (and giving it away to some wireless customers), and it doesn’t even own the network yet.

“In today’s world companies can’t operate without internet, and access to it is controlled by just a few providers,” adds Berners-Lee. “The FCC’s announcements today suggest they want to step back and allow concentrated market players to pick winners and losers online. Their talk is all about getting more people connected, but what is the point if your ISP only lets you watch the movies they choose, just like the old days of cable?”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, now the lone Democrat on the Commission, echoed this sentiment in her response to Chair Pai’s announcement.

“Talk to the over 700 small broadband providers in rural America, who have lived over a decade under the regulatory structure that Chairman Pai now seeks to implode, and they will tell you about the billions of dollars they have invested, the innovation they are responsible for sparking, and how the growth of their own networks, has supported thousands of internet startups, and made America the innovation capital of the world,” said Clyburn, who also points to the many startups and investors who “did not rely on some opaque promise” of neutrality from ISPs, “nor did they get permission from a broadband provider, to reach potential customers. They banked on an open, permission-less platform that has netted countless benefits for us all.”

Chairman Pai plans to release the full proposal this week, with the goal of taking an initial vote on whether to consider the rule on May 18.

When previous FCC Chair Tom Wheeler proposed the 2015 order, the public response was so huge and swift that it crashed the servers responsible for collecting comments. We imagine there will be similar backlash following today’s announcement.