By Dominique Lazanski, Senior Fellow, Technology Policy at Big Brother Watch and a Policy Analyst at the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Last week Ed Vaizey gave a speech on the Open Internet. This speech came a week after the European Commission’s Summit on the Open Internet and Net Neutrality. Readers here probably aren’t familiar with Net Neutrality, what it means or why Mr. Vaizey and the EU even care about it. I will try, briefly, to explain what it is and why we should care.
Net Neutrality is a confused term and something that means a number of different things. The left, especially in the US, uses the term to mean that all Internet traffic is created equally and should be managed equally and users of the Internet should be able to access it regardless of their connection of hardware. Though in theory this may sound like a good idea, it is not. What happens when (for example) a user buys a film on iTunes and wants to download it, and another customer who gets their connection to the Internet from the same company wants to log into and check their email? Should both of these actions be treated equally?
Both of these actions shouldn’t be treated equally and aren’t by current technical standards and business practices. Internet service providers (ISPs) manage Internet traffic in a complex and often highly technical way so that we, as end users, don’t see the buffering, offloading, and bandwidth increases and decreases on a daily basis. If all web traffic were treated equality, then it would be unlikely that I could watch an episode of Downton Abbey on the ITV player without many pauses and interruptions.
“...customers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”
Basically, ISPs could offer varying levels of broadband services and varying prices and content providers and ISPs may strike deals to allow for preference from one content provider over another. And they already do. But is this bad for us as customers of ISPs? It isn’t as long as certain best practices are at play.
Mr. Vaizey in his speech last week reiterated the conclusions of the European Commission’s consultation on the Open Internet and Net Neutrality. Both the UK and EU support the following approaches to Internet regulation:
- Consumers should have the ability to access any legal content. This is a realistic expectation, but does not mean that all traffic should be managed equally.
- Transparency. ISPs must be clear about their traffic management, bandwidth speeds and content partnerships. This is not unlike cable television providers. Transparency in this case is somewhat akin to ‘truth in advertising’ and OFCOM has already dealt with broadband speed issues.
- Investment and innovation. ISPs have and should be able to continue to invest in next generation infrastructure. This may mean innovation in technical development and business models.
All of this is good news for the technology industry here in the UK and in the EU in general – as especially in light of the Coalition Governments push to grow the technology industry. As Mr. Vaizey said,
“A lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people ... The internet has been responsible for an unprecedented level of innovation, which has led to multi billion dollar companies being formed in just a couple of years.”
So under the EU’s 2009 Telecoms Directive, all national regulating authorities – OFCOM in our case – will enforce these approaches and fine ISPs as the deem necessary for our local markets in the UK.
What is all of the confusion then, especially with today’s article,that Mr. Vaizey is for or against Net Neutrality. As I have said before, Net Neutrality is a confused term, however it is anything but neutral. If Mr. Vaizey defines Net Neutrality as ‘being able to access the Internet’ then he is for Net Neutrality, but if he defines it as I do – which is that Net Neutrality is Internet regulation – then he is against it. One thing is for sure, however, this Coalition Government is going to support technology business growth by light touch regulation. And we should all be for that.
For more information on Net Neutrality, see the presentations to the European Commission last week.