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By: MarkJ - 17 November, 2010 (12:27 PM)
parliament uk logoThe UK coalition governments Minister for Communications and the Creative Industries, Ed Vaizey, has backed proposals by Ofcom that would shun Net Neutrality (the principal of treating all internet traffic as equal) and allow big broadband ISPs the power to effectively favour some online content over others.

However Vaizey also took an almost identical line to the European Commission (EC) last week (here) and warned ISPs to ensure that consumers still had access to all "legal content [and] service[s]". The minister said the government would take into account three factors before considering any proposals:
Opennessconsumers should be able to access any legal content or service. Content providers should be able to innovate and reach users.

Transparencyproviders should set out in detail the extent of their traffic management and the impact on customers.

Support for innovation and investmentISPs should be able to manage their networks to ensure a good service and have flexibility in business models. Competition is important for ensuring continued openness and choice.
However, ensuring "access" is not the same as requiring an equal quality of service, although this is admittedly somewhat of a grey area given the already prevalent and perfectly acceptable use of Traffic Management systems by most UK ISPs (i.e. for load balancing).

However the real debate is not with general network management solutions but the potential for harm that could occur if ISPs start favouring content sources based on who pays them the most cash. At its worst some content providers, such as Skype, Facebook or even Google, could be forced onto a slower connection that might make them unusable.

Mr Vaizey told the FT World Telecoms Conference:

"The internet has been responsible for an unprecedented level of innovation, which has led to multi billion dollar companies being formed in just a couple of years.

This is a model that the British government wishes to protect. A lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people.

The government is no fan of regulation and we should only intervene when it is clearly necessary to deliver important benefits for consumers."

At present most ISPs still hide their restrictions behind vague Fair Usage Policies (FUP). Elsewhere those that do explain the limits can still make it incredibly tedious to find the detail. Asking ISPs to be "open" and "transparent" is of little use if that merely translates into yet more hard to read and or find small print.

Executive Director of the Open Rights Group (ORG), Jim Killock, said:

"Removing 'net neutrality' is likely to reduce innovation and reduce people's ability to exercise their freedom of speech. ORG will campaign against any market abuse, if companies like BT, Sky and Virgin restrict customer's Internet access for market advantage."

Robert Hammond, Head of Post and Digital Communications at Consumer Focus, said:

"The internet should allow unfettered access to all legal content. Allowing internet providers to prioritise access to some websites over others will create a worldwide web where big bully-boy companies rule, pushing out smaller websites and restricting consumers’ choice.

All voices should be heard equally on the net. Suggesting, as the Government does, that consumers can navigate round the restrictions placed upon their internet use by choosing between providers is wishful thinking at best. Any information on how internet providers prioritise different websites will be technical gobbledygook hidden away, and in reality will not help consumers to make informed choices."

In fairness, despite operators like BT and TalkTalk openly speaking of their desire to foster a two-tier mould of internet access and content, there remains precious little evidence to support the need for new regulation. Net Neutrality is a big issue but regulators are predominantly a reactionary force. We would have to wait for any damage to be done before it could be fixed.

However the road for ISPs is not perfectly clear. In the real world consumers are a highly mobile market and if pushed too far they will go elsewhere. The UK ISP market certainly has plenty of choice. It's easy to imagine the kind of uproar that could occur if an ISP suddenly clamped down too hard on content from YouTube, Facebook or Google etc. Most ISPs aren't so dumb as to shoot themselves in the foot by damaging access to vital content.
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