Two hours of discussion this morning drew out the main challenges that the net neutrality debate brings: ISPs wish to be able to manage and restrict Internet traffic for their own business reasons, raising the spectre of a ‘two tier Internet’.
At its worst, companies or customers could have to pay for types of access. Large numbers of citizens could be stuck behind restricted Internet connections, damaging innovation and preventing new services from finding a market.
Ed Vaizey had the courage today to hear from companies like the BBC, Yahoo! Skype and others, some of whom are already damaged by unfair restrictions.
He also took a good step in getting Tim Berners-Lee, who set out clearly what is at stake: our ability to freely communicate and innovate. He said the Internet is something we increasingly view as a right: a view that we wholly concur with.
Richard Allan from Facebook pointed out that commercial imperatives – who pays for content delivery and network development – was the key to getting the answer right. Google, Yahoo! and Skype explained the value of the Internet economy and the potential ISPs have to restrict their businesses.
On the other side of the debate, ISPs claimed that they need to be able to “innovate”, ie do whatever they like. BT claimed that ISPs should have the right to block services if they wished. They took the view that competition will resolve any problems, so long as consumers know what they are getting.
The potential for something going terribly wrong is absolutely there. The regulator and government do not wish to intervene, for good reason; but industry is not putting forward anything that looks like meaningful self-regulation.
In contrast with the USA, where rules are being put in place through the FCC, or Norway where ISPs have agreed a meaningful code, our ISPs are not offering us what we and the UK economy needs. If that continues to be the case, then Ed Vaizey will find himself with the task of breaking the log jam.