Because of this, Berners-Lee has been one of the foremost advocates of network neutrality, which is the principle that ISPs should not be allowed to block or degrade Internet traffic from their competitors in order to speed up their own. The push for net neutrality began in 2005, when incumbent telecom carriers successfully lobbied the FCC to repeal common carrier rules that required the incumbents to allow ISPs such as EarthLink to buy space on their broadband networks at discount rates. Because small ISPs are no longer guaranteed access to the big carriers' infrastructure at reasonable rates, Berners-Lee and other net neutrality advocates say net neutrality must be enforced to make sure the big carriers don't exert too much power over how the Web functions.
"This is a question of principle, it's a right to be able to access [the Web] anywhere, and it's a question of keeping the market open," he says. "Whether you happen to be getting it over wired or Wi-Fi or Mi-Fi, it doesn't have any bearing on the principles of free speech and connectivity."
Berners-Lee thinks that Web connectivity ought to be a basic human right that he has recently compared to the right to access water. He points to the role the Web played in the recent overthrow of the Egyptian government as a key reason to view Internet access not merely as a luxury but as a vital component of free speech.
"I listened to [Egyptian opposition leader] Mohamed ElBaradei talk recently and he was asked whether the revolution would have happened without the Web and he said no," Berners-Lee explains. "It worked because a lot of people figured out how to play their cards so they could enact change without violent conflict."
But Berners-Lee says that if ISPs are allowed to play favorites and offer a faster Internet for certain preferred websites over others, it could have a dampening effect on peoples' ability to get accurate information and thus harm democracy itself. In particular he points to the dangers that a non-neutral 'net might have during elections, when so many people rely upon the Web for their news.
"Some people worry that without net neutrality during election time that individual political parties might be able to buy bad connectivity for their opponents," he says. "Imagine that parties will be able to use campaign dollars to prevent the Internet from becoming a neutral space for democracy."