Culture minister Ed Vaizey is supporting a ‘two speed’ internet that would throw some of your favourite sites into the slow lane. That’s unless they pay a premium – a cost that would no doubt be passed onto us.
Could this be the end of the internet as we know it? Maybe that’s a little bit hyperbolic, but recent comments by the government’s culture minister, Ed Vaizey, have raised concerns over one of the internet’s founding principles – net neutrality.
‘Net neutrality’ can be a little difficult to get your head around, but it basically means that all information transferred over the web must not only be treated equally, but that we should be able to access all of it.
Net neutrality in the UK
Our scientific policy adviser, Rob Reid, has already discussed the importance of net neutrality in a previous Conversation. But that was inspired by a deal between Google and the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Verizon in America.
The issue has now well and truly come home to roost in the UK. Vaizey has put his neck out, arguing that this country should see the ‘evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service’.
In layman’s terms, ISPs would be able to charge websites more for ‘bigger pipes’, or faster internet. Sites, such as the BBC, Google or even Which? would have to pay a premium to get into the ‘fast lane’.
What’s the problem exactly?
‘But why is this so bad for us?’ Well, for a start, if internet traffic was managed in a discriminatory way it would likely stifle our freedom to access all of the web’s information. This is because websites that can afford to pay would be prioritised over those that can’t.
This would artificially damage startup sites that want to try their luck with a new online idea – it’s unlikely they’d be able afford such premium speeds. Thus, the free speech that we all know and love on the internet would no longer shine as bright.
Moreover, these premium charges would no doubt be passed onto us. If you haven’t got the cash to spend, you may not be able to access all of the internet’s content. For instance, your broadband provider could take a lesson from TV subscriptions and make you buy a more expensive ‘media package’ to access sites that use more juice, like YouTube or BBC iPlayer.
It’s too difficult to switch ISP
Vaizey also argued that there’s enough competition among Britain’s ISPs that, if you found your service was being throttled, you could simply switch providers. But as we already know – switching broadband provider isn’t as effortless as you think.
For this to be a realistic option, ISPs would need to make it much easier to switch (by scraping lengthy contracts for a start). They’d also need to be open about whether they were fiddling with your internet traffic, allowing you to make an informed decision about switching.
So now you know what the issue is, are you worried about net neutrality? We are, and have been talking to Ofcom about the matter for some time – we don’t think ISPs should be able to manage internet traffic in a discriminatory way.
We also think that Ofcom should develop an industry code of practice that protects the principles of net neutrality. ISPs must sign up and adhere to this, or face sanctions. Sadly, it looks like net neutrality may be in danger, so if you agree and think there shouldn’t be a ‘two tier’ internet, please support us in the comments.