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Net neutrality laws get backing of Web founder Berners-Lee

The father of the World Wide Web says that we need specific laws to ensure that the Internet remains open and an engine for growth.

Tim Berners-Lee at MIT. Martin LaMonica/CNET

The man who invented the World Wide Web believes that Net neutrality laws are critical for the future of the Internet.

In a guest blog post written for the European Commission's website, Berners-Lee discussed threats to "the openness that underpins the Web and the broader Internet." He aimed his comments at Europe, but they could equally apply to the US and other regions as well.

Simply put, the principle of Net neutrality holds that all traffic that flows through the Internet is treated equally, with no special preference in terms of speed or access given to one type of content or to individual providers.

Some companies have argued against Net neutrality, saying, for example, that high-bandwidth services like video-streaming sites should pay more for their portion of the network or be allowed to charge money for faster speeds. Those in favor of Net neutrality believe that charging fees would give access providers too much control over they content they provide over the Internet.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission plans a vote on February 26 to decide on new guidelines for Net neutrality.

Addressing the issue in Europe, Berners-Lee said that Net neutrality is under attack. A study called the 2014 Web Index released by the Web Foundation revealed that 74 percent of the 86 countries surveyed lacked "clear and effective net neutrality rules and/or show evidence of price discrimination." Further, in 95 percent of the countries surveyed that have no Net neutrality laws, the study found growing evidence of discrimination in Web traffic.

In addition, Berners-Lee cited a June 2013 study from the Dutch government, which found that Net neutrality triggers greater competition, lower prices, better connectivity and more innovation -- a plus for Internet users as well as companies. So far, the Internet has been able to get along without specific Net neutrality laws, Berners-Lee said. But as the Internet has grown, the need for such laws has changed.

"If we want to maintain and enhance the Internet as an engine for growth, we must ensure that companies providing access should not be able to block, throttle, or otherwise restrict legal content and services of their users online, be it for commercial or political motivation," Berners-Lee said.

See also: Net Fix -- making sense of the Net neutrality debate

Berners-Lee also came out against something he called "positive discrimination," which means that one Internet provider favors a specific service over another. Such a practice gives too much power to the telecommunications companies and online service providers, he said.

"This would crowd out competition and snuff out innovative new services before they even see the light of day," Berners-Lee said. "Imagine if a new startup or service provider had to ask permission from or pay a fee to a competitor before they could attract customers? This sounds a lot like bribery or market abuse -- but it is exactly the type of scenario we would see if we depart from net neutrality."

The European Union is currently considering Net neutrality laws as part of a proposal called the Telecoms Single Market Regulation. The European Parliament has already come out in favor of Net neutrality in its version of the proposal. Now the Council of the European Union has to voice its position, Berners-Lee said.

"Citizens and business in the EU need net neutrality now," he said, "before online discrimination becomes the norm."