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Ofcom Begin New Review of UK Net Neutrality Rules Post Brexit UPDATE

Tuesday, September 7th, 2021 (12:20 pm) - Score 2,376

The national telecoms and media regulator, Ofcom, has today started a review of their existing Net Neutrality rules, which were designed to ensure no serious blocking or slowing of access to legal websites or internet services by broadband ISPs and mobile operators. But such protections may soon change.

Back in 2011 the United Kingdom became one of the first countries within Europe to adopt a self-regulatory approach toward protection of the open internet from abuse (here). Indeed, those rules also provided part of the foundation for the EU’s own approach back in 2016 (here), which was later adopted into UK law.

In short, the regulation essentially means that providers cannot impose excessive restrictions against internet traffic and should treat almost all of it equally (i.e. they generally shouldn’t favour specific services, such as by blocking or slowing access). However, there are some exceptions to this, such as for when providers need to impose general traffic management, court ordered blocks or security measures (e.g. anti-virus/spam filtering).

The rules also help to stop ISPs from favouring content sources based on who pays them the most money, which might in turn lead to a degraded experience for other users (e.g. slowing the quality of Netflix or YouTube). This helps to ensure that excessive access controls over content don’t result in a walled garden style internet experience in the UK.

Likewise, the rules also prevent ISPs from being allowed to block certain legal internet platforms and services, such as when allowing their customers to access one VoIP provider, while at the same time blocking access to another (rival) operator (e.g. some mobile operators used to block VoIP calling over data).

In the UK these rules are applied via somewhat of a soft approach (i.e. it may be better to think of them as guidelines), which are governed by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) and their 2016 Open Internet Code. The code commits signatory ISPs to neutrality and transparency in traffic management on their networks (details).

Ofcom has generally also taken a fairly soft approach to enforcement of this, preferring to nudge operators into changing their ways rather than being more aggressive with penalties. However, the big ISPs, particularly those with strong interests in the content (e.g. TV) space, have never fully given up on their desire for more flexibility and that was underlined earlier this year by BT’s call for greater freedom (here).

The New Net Neutrality Review

For its part, the regulator has recognised that the UK is no longer a part of the EU, and thus it has become prudent to review some of their associated rules, with the Net Neutrality regulations being an obvious target (remember, the UK was a pioneer of protecting the open internet via self-regulation, and long before the EU turned it into law).

In addition, Ofcom notes that since the rules were introduced, there have been significant changes in the wider environment. “There are new, innovative and evolving technologies emerging in residential and business contexts (e.g. internet of things devices). These are underpinned by catalysts such as the emergence of 5G technology, and the accelerated move to the cloud,” said the regulator.

There are also increasing capacity demands from people and businesses,” said the regulator in a statement of the obvious. Data demands are always rising every single year, that’s normal as technology evolves. But for now, Ofcom are not taking a view on how the rules should change and their Call for Evidence is merely seeking feedback, but some change still seems inevitable.

Ofcom’s Statement said:

“We want to take a broad look at how the net neutrality framework is functioning. We will consider how it can best serve citizen and consumer interests and promote access and choice, while allowing businesses to innovate and invest in support of a vibrant and dynamic digital sector.

Through this call for evidence we want to engage with industry and other interested parties. We welcome views from ISPs, platforms, experts, users, and other interested organisations on the functioning of the framework, relevant developments in technology and demand, and any issues and challenges that will support our understanding of the impact of the framework in practice.”

At this point it’s worth remembering that demand for broadband and mobile data services would not exist without internet content providers (e.g. YouTube, Netflix, websites etc.). Some ISPs may complain that the increase in related data usage from these services and others raises their costs, but that’s the nature of the beast (a cost of doing business) and should ideally continue to be reflected in the prices we all pay as end-users.

Ofcom now intends to invite responses until 2nd November 2021, and they then expect to publish the initial findings from their review during the Spring of 2022. We can only hope that it continues to strike the right balance and doesn’t erode vital consumer protections.

In our view, the existing rules, while imperfect, have generally worked well to keep the balance fair and the internet open (as it was always intended to be). Ofcom will need to be very cautious as they move to re-examine this most contentious of areas.

UPDATE 4:34pm

BT has given their reaction to the start of Ofcom’s review, although they’ve yet to spell out exactly what they want to see changed, and until that happens then we’ll remain sceptical of their intentions.

Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer Division, said:

“It’s in everyone’s interests to maintain a fair and open internet but that requires rules to adapt to the way the internet has evolved. With the dependency on online services continuing to grow, we believe the time is right for Ofcom to be reviewing this important area, supporting the industry to enable a positive experience for all users in the years ahead.”

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on Twitter, , Facebook and Linkedin.
Leave a Comment
22 Responses
  1. Smith says:

    Vodafone’s VOXI zero rates data from some social media and video streaming platforms, which I have always thought goes against net neutrality.

    1. Peter says:

      As long as they allow other to join then all good.

    2. Ben says:

      That page isn’t particularly transparent. IMO the partnership terms (including financials) should be public and universal for all partners.

    3. Lucian says:

      Oh yeah. I often wondered about that!

  2. RaptorX says:

    Now that we don’t have the EU to stop this government’s corruption, I can just see a fully walled garden internet access coming to Blighty. Costs will shoot up, choice of websites will plummet (approved list only), as will choice of ISPs with the smaller ones driven out of business and censorship will reign supreme.

    Another glorious “benefit” of brexit. What a total cluster.

    1. joe says:

      Did you read the article? The Uk had NN before the EU when the Tories were already in Gov…

    2. RaptorX says:

      Of course I’ve read it, but the situation has changed.

  3. Amil Pererra says:

    Now that we don’t have to bow down to the oppressive regime known as the EU who stopped our government’s making its own rules, as mandated to do so by the majority of PEOPLE who voted them in to make such decisions, I can just see a fully liberal internet access coming to Blighty. Costs will be governed by competition, choice of websites will explode (including sites previously blocked), as will the choice of ISPs, with uncompetitive ones departing the market due to their own ineptitude. Censorship driven by our former masters at the EU will be swept away.
    A benefit of freedom from our former overseas Masters, the EU. Thank goodness for Brexit.
    A fantastic result for democratic principles

    1. Drowning in an ocean of Red, White and Blue tape. says:

      I hope that was satire, but I fear it was not.

    2. Buggerlugz says:

      If it was, it was a cracking example….lol

      I can only see the government turning the internet into yet another vessel enabling them and their friends even more wealth, but then again I think the lot of them are corrupt and I’m a cynic….

    3. Matt says:

      You think it’s a good idea that they can charge more for certain services idiot

    4. Buggerlugz says:

      Not at all Matt. But i’m pretty sure if there is money to be made, the unscrupulous will take it and run.

  4. aaaaa says:

    But the courts can block a website to an entire nation as long as theres enough YesMen for it. Make sure to add in a snooping law or two

  5. Matt says:

    If they f*** with my gaming traffic it will be a cold day in hell for them also why don’t they just block p*** we don’t need that use of s*** that will bring the internet down to a safe level hell it will cut internet traffic in half if they f*** with things in the wrong way I’m going to go mental I believe they can change the rules as long as it benefits everyone but if they start slowing down game in traffic time sensitive s*** I’m going to go mental

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      You can be pretty certain low latency gaming traffic will come with an additional price tag attached to it, if you want to game. Its another example of jobs for the boys, hell it wouldn’t surprise me if the government set up a new department just find ways to exploit the possibilities further.

    2. Gary H says:

      Who are you to decide your legal use of the internet is more important than anyone elses. As for whats going to happen in the future if things go the wrong way I believe that ships already sailed.

  6. Ex Telecom Engineer says:

    The Tech Giants are placing a massive burden on Telecom companies worldwide, with network bandwidth requirements increasing year on year; At the same time Governments are heavily regulating the Telecom industry, promoting competition, and holding down prices for end users. In the meantime, the same Tech Giants have become Trillion Dollar companies while the Telecom companies are squeezed from both ends. As far as streaming media content and Voip services, that type of traffic needs Quality of Service priority, otherwise you’d be looking at picture freezes on Netflix, or massive delays and echo on Voip.
    The US Tech Giants make huge profits, in countries like the UK, but contribute little to the countries economies where they provide service. No doubt the Tech giants pay something, toward ensuring bandwidth capacity on subsea and backbone links, but do they pay anything toward the distribution capacity on national networks?
    One of BT’s complaints were around power spikes, as things like game downloads are released, and big media streaming events take place, so Ofcom may also look at things from a Net Neutrality vs Carbon Neutrality angle.
    Is it wrong to expect Trillion Dollar Tech companies, pay more to allow smaller online players a level online playing field? Rather than expecting all the expense of an open internet to land on regulated Telecom companies? In my opinion, it’s about time the Tech Giants are squeezed to pay more, since they appear to be reaping all the reward with little responsibility for ensuring it all works.

    1. Buggerlugz says:

      The tech giants need to be taxed properly, unfortunately they have friends in government and we all know a few bitcoins of short-change here and there will make this problem go away. Which is why it’ll never happen.

    2. Ex Telecom Engineer says:

      “The tech giants need to be taxed properly, unfortunately they have friends in government and we all know a few bitcoins of short-change here and there will make this problem go away. Which is why it’ll never happen.”

      Buggerlugz, I wouldn’t be too sure on that. The problem with directly taxing these Tech Giants, is that it raises the ire of the US, and other Governments around the World, due to International Tax agreements. The US have already dropped Net Neutrality, so it would be easily justifiable to change the rules around Net Neutrality, forcing the major streaming entities to make more investment in this country, or allowing Telecom companies to squeeze the high bandwidth streaming content providers. The Telecom providers make more profit, so pay more tax, and the local economies benefit, problem sorted.

    3. GNewton says:

      “while the Telecom companies are squeezed from both ends.”

      Nobody feels sorry for them. Companies like BT brought it upon themselves with their sheer incompetence in the past. BT knew that bandwidth-hungry applications would come, yet for years won’t do proper investments in fibre access networks. Instead it would waste resources on adventures like BT Sports, its 2017 Italian scandal, its 2001 debt crisis triggered by wasting Billions on 3G licenses, etc. Then there was its “Can’t Do” culture from past GPO times.

      BT is more than a decade too late in the game of deploying fibre.

    4. Ex Telecom Engineer says:

      “Nobody feels sorry for them. Companies like BT brought it upon themselves with their sheer incompetence in the past. BT knew that bandwidth-hungry applications would come”

      It doesn’t just affect BT though does it, it affects all Telecom providers like VMO2, CityFibre, Vodafone,as well as providers in other countries like Deutsche Telekom,Telefonica, etc, etc, etc; To say it affects BT alone would be incorrect.
      Going forward, regulators in other countries may also start reviewing Net Neutrality.

  7. WonkoTheSaneUK says:

    Boris won’t sell the UK interweb to tech giants like Google or Amazon.
    He’ll sell it to Rupert Murdoch. Fox Internet, anyone?

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