Keep the Web separate from the Internet
Keeping the web universal and keeping its standards open help people invent new services. But a third principle—the separation of layers—partitions the design of the Web from that of the Internet.
This separation is fundamental. The Web is an application that runs on the Internet, which is an electronic network that transmits packets of information among millions of computers according to a few open protocols. An analogy is that the Web is like a household appliance that runs on the electricity network. A refrigerator or printer can function as long as it uses a few standard protocols—in the U.S., things like operating at 120 volts and 60 hertz. Similarly, any application—among them the Web, e-mail or instant messaging—can run on the Internet as long as it uses a few standard Internet protocols, such as TCP and IP.
Manufacturers can improve refrigerators and printers without altering how electricity functions, and utility companies can improve the electrical network without altering how appliances function. The two layers of technology work together but can advance independently. The same is true for the Web and the Internet. The separation of layers is crucial for innovation. In 1990 the Web rolled out over the Internet without any changes to the Internet itself, as have all improvements since. And in that time, Internet connections have sped up from 300 bits per second to 300 million bits per second (Mbps) without the Web having to be redesigned to take advantage of the upgrades.
Electronic Human Rights
Although internet and web designs are separate, a Web user is also an Internet user and therefore relies on an Internet that is free from interference. In the early Web days it was too technically difficult for a company or country to manipulate the Internet to interfere with an individual Web user. Technology for interference has become more powerful, however. In 2007 BitTorrent, a company whose “peer-to-peer” network protocol allows people to share music, video and other files directly over the Internet, complained to the Federal Communications Commission that the ISP giant Comcast was blocking or slowing traffic to subscribers who were using the BitTorrent application. The FCC told Comcast to stop the practice, but in April 2010 a federal court ruled the FCC could not require Comcast to do so. A good ISP will often manage traffic so that when bandwidth is short, less crucial traffic is dropped, in a transparent way, so users are aware of it. An important line exists between that action and using the same power to discriminate.
This distinction highlights the principle of net neutrality. Net neutrality maintains that if I have paid for an Internet connection at a certain quality, say, 300 Mbps, and you have paid for that quality, then our communications should take place at that quality. Protecting this concept would prevent a big ISP from sending you video from a media company it may own at 300 Mbps but sending video from a competing media company at a slower rate. That amounts to commercial discrimination. Other complications could arise. What if your ISP made it easier for you to connect to a particular online shoe store and harder to reach others? That would be powerful control. What if the ISP made it difficult for you to go to Web sites about certain political parties, or religions, or sites about evolution?
Unfortunately, in August, Google and Verizon for some reason suggested that net neutrality should not apply to mobile phone–based connections. Many people in rural areas from Utah to Uganda have access to the Internet only via mobile phones; exempting wireless from net neutrality would leave these users open to discrimination of service. It is also bizarre to imagine that my fundamental right to access the information source of my choice should apply when I am on my WiFi-connected computer at home but not when I use my cell phone.