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'Save the open internet in Europe,' pleads web inventor Tim Berners-Lee

In an open letter, a pioneer of the online world warns that loopholes in EU regulations could spell the end for net neutrality.

DENMARK / COPENHAGEN _ European union flag golden stars and blue sheet fly over over Copenhagen today on 14 January 2012 (PHOTO BY FRANCIS JOSEPH DEAN / DEAN PICTURES) (Photo by Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images)
Francis Dean/Corbis/Getty Images

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, has made an impassioned argument in favor of net neutrality in Europe, calling on European citizens to stop legislation that could see the creation of so-called internet "fast lanes."

In an open letter published by the World Wide Web Foundation on Thursday, Berners-Lee and law academics Barbara van Schewick and Lawrence Lessig warn that "potential loopholes" in EU guidelines could threaten the open nature of the internet. The guidelines are being written following a European Parliament vote on net neutrality in October.

With public consultation due to end Monday, the open letter urges EU citizens to have their say on regulators' next steps.

Net neutrality proponents argue that all web traffic should be treated equally and that providers should be stopped from prioritizing data based on, for instance, the popularity of a given service or whether a company has paid to have its traffic moved into the fast lane. Internet service providers, meanwhile, argue that more flexibility in rules could help them manage online traffic and encourage investment in network infrastructure.

The push for net neutrality in Europe echoes a months-long policy debate in the US that last month culminated in a landmark court ruling in favor of regulators. While the topic can be heavy on technical and bureaucratic details, it sparked into public awareness two years ago when comedian John Oliver compared cable companies to the Mafia and urged viewers of his HBO show to call on regulators to take action. That they did, so much so that they crashed servers at the US Federal Communications Commission.

Tim Berners-Lee speaks at the Cannes Lions International Festival in June 2015.

Francois G. Durand/Getty Images

It remains to be seen if Berners-Lee and the law professors can have a similar effect.

Berners-Lee, who was knighted in 2004 for his role in transforming the internet, certainly has the stature. Before his groundbreaking work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the internet was a little-known, little-trafficked network for academics and scientific researchers. It had nothing of the flash of today's web -- no viral videos, no emojis, no Pokemon Go -- which can trace its roots back to a humble proposal to create a hyperlinked data system.

In recent years, Berners-Lee has turned his attention to efforts such as curbing government spying, ensuring personal privacy and, as he told CNET in 2014, helping transform the internet as we know it "from being a web of documents to a web of a programmable computer."

Thursday's call for net neutrality regulations pays tribute to the new realities of life online.

"The internet has become the critical infrastructure of our time -- for our daily life, for our economy, for our democracy," the letter reads. "Strong guidelines will protect the future of competition, innovation and creative expression in Europe, enhancing Europe's ability to lead in the digital economy.

"They will ensure that every European, no matter the colour of their skin or the size of their wallets, has an equal chance to innovate, compete, speak, organise and connect online."

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