/ Technology

Protecting net neutrality in the UK

Fish in large bowl, next to fish in small bowl

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.


Best solution?

Stop paying out a fortune to shareholders and invest the money back into the network, improving the infrastructure, so that net congestion isn’t an issue in the first place, removing the need to traffic-manage at all.

I pay a not insignificant price each month for Virgin’s 20Mb connection, but if I download more than a certain amount between certain times, it gets cut to 5Mb.

But what do they expect? If people are paying for a higher-speed broadband connection, it’s usually precisely because they want to download or stream lots of stuff – that’s the whole purpose of it, and so it shouldn’t encounter limits/shaping at all. If all I wanted to do was browse web pages and check my e-mail, I’d be on the absolute minimum speed available.

If I’m paying for a 20Mb connection, I should be able to run it at full capacity 24 hours a day if I choose to do so, without worrying about shaping. Otherwise, if they want to cut my speed by 75% for 5 hours, then my bill should reflect that. After all, it’s not my fault if they offer speeds which their network can’t sustain.

Network improvements would also allow them to increase the upstream speeds, which – at least in the UK – are generally woeful. I should be able to upload at at least half the speed I can download, but it’s just a fraction of that. With social networking, uploading to sites like YouTube is becoming almost as important as downloading, and upstream speeds need changing to reflect that.

Martin Baird says:
20 November 2010

Having been on the net since 9.6kb modems and computers since the start I would not really appreciate being without them but suggest we can all go back to snail mail and instead of buying on-line, visit shops on the high street.
If we were not able to buy items that way, tough, do we really need them. The government would almost certainly have to rethink it’s strategy of putting info on-line on their lousy websites, councils would also have the problem and businesses would have to open shops to earn their corn once more, no more “Pay-on-Line”. Life may even become a little less stressed for many.
Why should I pay for the right to spend my money, shop keepers do not, to my knowledge, charge entrance to go into a shop.
The internet started as a means of free distribution of info but government and big business have killed that idea. The computer industry would have another ,com bubble burst.
I for one would loose contact with some good people but am prepared to do without computers and the anti-social mobile phone.
The Luddite