There’s a fierce battle raging on about the world wide web that you might not even be aware of. It’s a struggle for net neutrality and the outcome could radically change the internet as we know it.
In August Google made unwelcome headlines after agreeing a deal with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Verizon. Public interest campaigners said the resulting plans would ‘end the internet as we know it’.
The outrage caused by the deal is just the latest in a long running argument about one of the founding principles of the internet – net neutrality.
Put simply, net neutrality says that all data transferred over the web should be treated equally, regardless of its content. By extension, this means that all website content is treated equally and all consumers can access it.
The risks of a discriminating internet
The Google/Verizon deal proposes to allow ISPs to charge sites more for faster transfer across the network. This would effectively put sites that don’t pay a premium onto a slower, ‘second tier’ internet. Plus, charges would inevitably be passed onto consumers, meaning poorer users (or those unwilling to pay) would be unable to access all of the content on the net.
The proposals put forward by Google and Verizon would allow service providers to manage the traffic they offer, through their networks according to who pays the most.
However, traffic management is not new and has long been used by ISPs to deal with network congestion. It allows them to ensure users get a minimum level of performance, even at busy times. The specific worry in the case of Verizon is that traffic management favours those who can pay for it. Under such a system you may have to pay a premium to watch BBC iPlayer, as it requires a fast connection to work properly.
Another aspect of traffic management that threatens net neutrality is that it can be used in a discriminatory way. ISPs could disadvantage competitors by throttling the speed of their services – e.g. a broadband company that also offers a phone service could slow down Skype, or block it altogether.
Our talks with Ofcom on net neutrality
Thankfully, the UK regulator has recognised the significant issues for consumers posed by traffic management and net neutrality. For the past three months Ofcom has been seeking the views of ISPs and consumer groups, like Which?
The question? What’s the best way to ensure that traffic management techniques, which can legitimately stop the internet from clogging-up, aren’t used in discriminatory ways contrary to the principle of net neutrality.
One way is to inform and empower consumers so that they can recognise when ISPs are discriminating and make it easier for them to switch providers when they do. This way the market will act to effectively regulate traffic management policies.
For this to be a realistic option, ISPs must be open and clear about their management practices and current barriers to switching, like 12, 18 or even 24 month contracts, should be removed.
But this alone is not enough. Ofcom should develop an industry code of practice that protects the principles of net neutrality, which ISPs must sign up and adhere to, or face sanctions. Without such moves to protect net neutrality, there’s a real danger that the internet, as we know it, will perish.