Berners-Lee backpedals on net neutrality

We’ve previously observed that Sir Timmy has taken a very nuanced approach to net neutrality by endorsing the concept but defining it in a way that differs radically from the actual legislation. He continued that approach in a Congressional hearing today, speaking platitudes about a content-neutral Web but refusing to endorse any bill:

Although he has previously voiced support for Net neutrality, Berners-Lee on Thursday stopped short of taking a position on the various bills on that topic proposed in Congress in the past year.

“I can say I feel that a nondiscriminatory Internet is very important for a society based on the World Wide Web,” he said. “I think that the communications medium is so important to society that we have to give it a special treatment.”

Proponents of Net neutrality define the concept as prohibiting network operators, such as Verizon and Comcast, from being allowed to charge content companies like Google and extra fees for prioritization. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who arranged the hearing, was among the chief sponsors of a legislative proposal last year that would put that mandate into law.

Perhaps in a nod to the issue’s divisiveness, with Republicans tending to reject the idea of new laws, Markey on Thursday issued a disclaimer to his colleagues. “Before end of year, we’re going to hear from all sides on that issue so that everyone’s perspective is heard,” he said.

What we have here is a man who stumbled into a fight and now wants to get out of the middle of it without offending anyone. He knows that the content of the Markey bill is ridiculous, (and I know that he knows this because I brought it to his attention personally.) But to support peace and freedom is to support net neutrality, so he can’t say that he’s against it.

It’s my personal opinion that Lee took a position without fully understanding it. That probably sounds weird to anybody who doesn’t live packets and breath routes, but the fact is that Sir Tim’s expertise is in a wholly different part of the Internet than the part that’s affected by forwarding priorities, peering arrangements, and packet queues.

He’s an application guy, and his deal is images, fonts, links, document styles, and data types. In fact, the design of his invention, HTTP 1.0, was naive about Internet traffic. It insisted on chunking information up into tiny pieces roughly one third the optimum size for Internet traffic management, and by slowing them down immensely by not using TCP sockets correctly (every object had its own socket, and hence suffered from Slow Start.) No traffic guy would make such a mistake, and the folks who came behind cleaned up the mess. So here’s a guy trying to do the right thing and largely failing because he moved too soon and can’t admit he made a mistake.

Bob Kahn did it the right way: he sat back and listened until he understood what the debate was about, and then came down on the right side of the question, against the new regulations. That’s the kind of guy who invents an Internet.

Many of the Internet’s great heroes have turned out to be one-trick ponies. There are some guys, like Kahn, David Clark, Van Jacobsen, and Jon Postel, who managed to make important contributions year after year. Clark was the main author of the “End to End Arguments in System Design” paper, but he was also one of the main men behind DiffServ, twenty years later. And then you have guys who pop up once with a good idea but never have another one, and that makes me wonder if the idea was really original.

I think the serial innovators are the ones to heed.

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