March 16, 2011 | Jim Killock

Ed Vaizey’s Net neutrality roundtable with Tim Berners Lee

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.

Comments (4)

  1. Chris Terry:
    Mar 16, 2011 at 09:20 PM

    Great precis. Meaningful self regulation is surely a contradiction in terms though where big business is concerned? Perhaps it is too siloed to come up with a response across the different sectors and markets. To break the log jam I think you need a brave Minister or Secretary of State to intervene and force business to meet some of the costs for a better faster network. Distinct lack of foresight from succesive administrations in not anticipating this issue a long time ago. Fair play to Ed Vaizey but will he follow up the deliberation with a similarly meaningful code, and act?

  2. Mark Goodge:
    Mar 16, 2011 at 09:32 PM

    The government is between a rock and a hard place, really. On the one hand, net neutrality is important, and I think that the DCMS recognises that. But, on the other, legislating to enforce it is precisely the sort of government intervention in the Internet that many would see as illiberal and potentially the thin end of the wedge.

    A possible way around this would be to approach the issue by means of advertising regulation. In the same way that Ofcom has proposed that ISPs should no longer be able to advertise "unlimited" data transfer unless it really is unlimited, it would be feasible to insist that the term "unlimited" - or anything similar to it - cannot be applied to any connection which restricts or blocks certain services or content sources.

    BT et al say that competition will solve the problem so long as consumers know what they're getting. So let's see if they still hold that view if it's clear that they really do have to let consumers know what they're (not) getting.

  3. Jim Killock:
    Mar 17, 2011 at 11:34 AM

    I agree with both of you that self regulation is difficult. The problem currently is that government isn’t quite sure what it wants. While rhetorically committed to an open Internet, in practice they may be willing to tolerate less open offerings from many providers. If government has a clear objective, then they can measure industry proposals against that, and legislate if necessary.

  4. Simon Hopkins:
    Mar 20, 2011 at 07:40 PM

    What a lot of people seem to be forgetting is all internet users already pay for the internet network through their connection fees.

    It would be an offence to interfere with the service (just like interfering with mail).

    If the networks are costing more then the service fees should increase, simple! xxx

    But why haven't they?

    What may really be going on here is an attempt to censor selected parts of the internet by making it difficult to receive, for example, alternative TV content that might compete.

    There's already a clear conflict of interest where BT, Virgin and others are both connection provider and content provider, there's a clear potential motive for obstructing competitive content.

    There's evidence this is already happening in some areas (contact us for documented details)