genachowski - AP - January 11 2011
Julius Genachowski urges: Network neutrality is crucial to the prosperity and development of the World Wide Web. Photo by AP
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Bloomberg
Sir Tim Berners-Lee: What triggered the Internet’s wild proliferation is its very openness to all, without controls. Photo by Bloomberg
Emil Salman
Moshe Kahlon could save Israeli Internet, if he wishes. Photo by Emil Salman

Sir Tim Berners-Lee is worried. That means you should be worried, too.

Berners-Lee is worried about something that we all take for granted, just like the oxygen we breathe, the electricity that flows through the cables inside our walls and the water that flows from our faucets - well, water may not be the best example for Israel, but you get the idea.

Berners-Lee is worried about the future of that global network we call the Internet but which should called the World Wide Web - a network that uses Internet infrastructure.

The British engineer and computer scientist may not be as famous as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook or Steve Jobs of Apple. But he's one of the most important inventors in the digital age. The Internet, rather the World Wide Web, was invented exactly 20 years ago on his desktop in Geneva, Switzerland. It had exactly one site and one browser, both on the same computer.

Internet protocol was conceived by a number of scientists, well before Berners-Lee invented the Web. But his invention is what triggered the Web's wild proliferation worldwide in what is probably the biggest social and economic development of the last 100 years.

It is no mere coincidence that the Internet developed at super speed, penetrating every aspect of our lives. What enabled its evolution is its special architecture: Nobody manages it, anybody can hook up to it, and anybody can use it.

Which is precisely why Berners-Lee is worried. In a paper he published last month in Science, he argued that the freedom, openness and accessibility of the World Wide Web are under threat from different directions.

People take the Web's openness for granted and assume it's a natural thing, Berners-Lee explains. But it isn't so. Powerful economic forces have tried, are trying and will try to restrict it.

He isn't the only one worried. Julius Genachowski, the lawyer appointed by the Obama administration to chair the Federal Communications Commission, is very worried about net neutrality and restricted access. In-depth research by the FCC has found that unless measures are taken to protect the Web, economic forces with vested interests will jeopardize that neutrality.

Freedom to innovate, open to all

On December 23, 2010, the FCC published a 194-page "Report and Order," titled, "Preserving the Free and Open Internet." In this report, the FCC said that after conducting hearings and listening to the views of 100,000 respondents, it had concluded that the freedom and openness of the Internet are under threat and the government needs to intervene and lay down rules to safeguard them.

Why does it matter if the Internet is free and open? Berners-Lee and Genachowski clarify what we all take for granted and shouldn't: The Internet is prospering precisely because it is free and open. There are no gatekeepers to block unseemly players. Nobody has to ask permission to introduce new technologies, build a business, form or join social networks or exchange opinions or information. Consumers can choose the content, applications and services they want, create or share.

This openness encourages competition. It creates a magical circle of investments-innovation-new uses that spurs more investment and so forth. This circle needs to be protected.

An open Internet isn't just a terrific economic engine. It is critical to safeguarding freedom of expression and democracy. As the public debate has migrated from the soapbox to the Internet, the Web has become the leading platform in the world for opinions and information to be aired and viewed.

Who is threatening the Internet? Berners-Lee identifies several different entities, from Internet service providers to the owners of infrastructure, to big players on the Internet such as Facebook and Apple, to governments. Genachowski's attention is fixed more on the threat under his watch - the communications companies that supply "broadband" services - that is, the physical connection to high-speed Internet.

Yes, the FCC has found that the broadband vendors are a threat to the Internet. They form a barrier to openness by blocking or censoring content, services or applications, without exposing their practices to either consumers or suppliers of the content, applications and services.

The FCC has also found that the broadband vendors have very clear economic incentives to compromise the openness and freedom of the Web in a way that hurts the economy and society, meaning in a way that hurts innovation, competition, the public discourse, health care, the environment, investments, and technological and scientific progress.

To prevent the broadband vendors from doing all this, the FCC laid down rules governing transparency, openness and discrimination (which is banned ).

Transparency: Suppliers of fixed-line and wireless broadband must provide proper disclosure about how they manage the Web, their own performance and their terms of business.

Openness: Vendors may not block any legal content, applications or services, and they may not block applications that compete with their own applications in communications, voice or video.

Discrimination: They may not discriminate unreasonably in transmitting traffic over the Internet.

Following the report and the FCC's directives, many groused that the watchdog had spared the wireless Internet providers because they were still relatively young and feeling their way in the market. They also complained that its rules were too fuzzy and generalized.

Yet clearly Washington and much of the public have realized that a free, open Internet is critical to economic and social progress, and that this free, open Internet is threatened by big, belligerent companies.

Finland moves first

While Americans swing between quick action and sluggish staggering, governments elsewhere have grasped the dangers. Finland became the first country to enact a law making access to broadband a legal right for all Finnish citizens. Moreover, service must be available at a speed of at least 1 megabit per second. It also set a national goal: connecting every citizen at a speed of up to 100 megabits per second within 5 years.

Australia's government have unveiled an ambitious project of networking the entire continent with fiber optic cables, thereby connecting 93% of all its citizens to broadband services at an investment of $40 billion.

What about Israel?

Here, we're still busy telling ourselves and the world that we're the Internet Nation. We love to repeat the story about how clever we are technologically, even as we slide down international rating scales to third-world levels.

Talking the talk, and leaving it at that

The Communications Ministry and Finance Ministry talk much about network neutrality but do little. Every delay makes the problem more difficult to handle, considering that the officials in these ministries are up against the most powerful, belligerent players in the economy, which may have a vested interest in halting progress and openness.

Israel's Internet system is among the most backward in the West. It's expensive, and it's slow. Israeli businesses are slow to embrace the Internet.

Israel's Internet has become the poster child of monopolistic structures, of the oligopolistic and fossilized structures that characterize all too much of our business and public sector. When violent private and government monopolies grip the nation in a vise, it's very hard to achieve progress and build businesses online.

In a non-competitive environment like that existing in Israel, companies have a disproportionate amount of power, and they exploit the consumers' lack of alternatives. In this way, they trample network neutrality, and in Israel, that is a very real danger. The Israeli regulator cannot rely on the pitiful competition that exists to create healthy balances between the interests of Big Business and the interests of the consumer.

A few months back, Communications Minister Moshe Kahlon began to identify the problem, at least part of it. But the Communications Ministry and Finance Ministry have yet to put together laws that would guarantee that the Internet stays free and open.

The Internet could spur change in communications, science, trade, business, industry, health care and education in Israel. It could serve as well as a measure of economic and social freedom - of the degree to which our entrenched monopolies find themselves challenged by startup online companies.

Right now, though, it isn't happening. None of our leaders has taken a hard look in the mirror.

Kahlon could spearhead the move. But turning the Internet from a privilege for the few to an opportunity for the many requires widespread support and a comprehensive government policy, involving all the ministries, authorities and relevant players in the economy.