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Berners-Lee Gets Technical on The Hill

WASHINGTON -- Tim Berners-Lee went to Congress today with a global view of the future of the Internet and was hit with a dose of here-and-now U.S. policy questions, including network neutrality, digital rights management (DRM) and Internet pornography.

Berners-Lee, the widely acknowledged inventor of the hypertext-linked Web and the author of the first version of HTML, politely declined specific policy advice, but he still made his positions clear.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, Berners-Lee said in other countries network neutrality is an accepted principle and told lawmakers it is important to protect universal user access to the Internet.

"Most of the rest of the world considers [network] neutrality as essential," Berners-Lee said. "I feel a non-discriminatory Internet is very important for a world based on the World Wide Web."

Berners-Lee said when he was growing up in the United Kingdom, mail service was a key communications channel, and the U.K. imposed heavy penalties for interfering with the mail. The Internet should be treated the same, he said.

"Of course, the imperative to assure the free flow of information has only grown given the global nature of the Internet and the Web," he added. "The special care we extend to the World Wide Web comes from a long tradition that democracies have of protecting their vital communications channels."

Through federal court decisions and Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rules, U.S. broadband carriers like AT&T and Comcast have been freed of the network neutrality obligations that came with carrying dial-up Internet traffic. AT&T and Verizon, for instance, hope to charge content and application providers extra fees based on bandwidth usage.

Critics say the idea amounts to price discrimination with consumers at risk of having content sped up or slowed down based on carriers' deals with content providers. The debate has roiled Congress for more than two years, with network neutrality proposals defeated by the then-Republican-controlled Congress.

Democrats now in control of Congress promise to push the issue to the top of the telecommunications public policy debate.

"A slight compromise [over network neutrality] might work, but I always think we should err on the side of keeping the medium a blank sheet," Berners-Lee said. "In other countries neutrality is assumed. When I mention it [the U.S. debate] in other countries, they ask, 'What is that?'" Berners-Lee said. "I hope it stays that way."

Berners-Lee also told lawmakers that Internet content should be delivered without DRM protections, claiming copyright locks are not the future but, rather, a relic of the past. As he repeatedly stressed throughout his testimony and in response to the panel's questions, Berners-Lee said the Internet has grown because of open standards.

"Whether developing an auction site, a search engine or a new way of selling consumers goods, e-commerce entrepreneurs have been able to develop services with the confidence that they will be available for use with an Internet connection and a Web browser," he said.

He said that among the lessons learned over the first 15 years of the Internet are that new applications and services will continue to grow as long as the Internet remains based on open technical standards, scalable architecture and access to the standards on a royalty-free basis.

Berners-Lee called Apple's iTunes services an "intriguing mix of proprietary technology and open standards." However, he predicted a small horizon for long-term success because of Apple's DRM protections.

"Because Apple uses closed, non-standard technology for its copy protection, the growth is seen as limited. By contrast, the podcast component of iTunes is growing quite dramatically," he said, noting podcasts are based on open standards.

The alternative to DRM, he suggested, was software that "led people to do the right thing." He also said he agreed with Apple CEO Steve Jobs' recent statements that music labels should sell music encoded in an open licensable format. "I'm inclined to let software let you to do the right thing."

That prompted Rep. Mary Bono to become the only lawmaker Thursday to seriously question Berners-Lee. The California Republican said Berners-Lee and Jobs' proposal was like a "speed limit with no enforcement," contending the idea would not stop the widespread theft of content over the Internet.

"With all due respect to Steve Jobs, he's trying to sell hardware," Bono said. "I wonder how he would feel if his patents were all over the Internet."

Berners-Lee replied that some people will always push the bounds but large-scale theft is easy to spot. He added, though, that he had "no firm opinion if we will move to a totally DRM-free world."

Shifting gears, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) asked Berners-Lee what could be done about child pornography on the Internet.

"Every powerful tool can be used for good or evil," he said. "Those things are illegal with or without the Web."