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Dominique Lazanski: Ofcom's new guidelines are common-sense, light-touch regulation

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Dominique Lazanski is Head of Digital Policy at the TaxPayers' Alliance.

Yesterday, Ofcom released its guidance on net neutrality for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK. Ofcom will be taking a wait-and-see approach to any possible regulation and encourages customer education on the subject. This is a big win for ISPs, content providers, UKplc and the economy as a whole.

Net neutrality is the idea that all bits traveling over networks known as the Internet should be treated equally. In theory this might sound like a good idea, but Internet traffic management is a necessary part of what ISPs do that they can deliver more bandwidth intensive items like video and less bandwidth intensive items like email efficiently. ISPs should also be able to prioritise urgent Internet traffic, such as calls from a doctor in the Scottish Highlands to a hospital in London for lifesaving surgical advice. Managing Internet traffic is what ISPs have done and do as part of this network management.

Heavy-handed regulation promoting net neutrality, like that introduced in the US and the Netherlands, will force ISPs to stop doing what they do – manage and build Internet infrastructure – and take time and money away from this. In the UK’s fragile economy, it is essential that ISPs continue to build out their networks either through 4G spectrum deployment or rural broadband. Net neutrality would have only impacted and even prevented this from happening.

Over the last year, a multi-stakeholder net neutrality group made up of ISPs, content providers, and many others have met regularly to discuss a code of practice and traffic management principles. The result is the publishing online of individual ISP Internet traffic management polices and practice. Ofcom welcomed this and encouraged the continuation of the process. This has been a truly industry-led regulatory approach.

In Ofcom’s statement, it said:

“Ofcom’s current view is that it should be able to rely on the operation of market forces to address this issue, since historic attempts to restrict internet access to ‘walled gardens’ have not proved to be sustainable in the face of competition from open services.”

I applaud this guidance from Ofcom as it will let users and business get on with their life and work. I think the government works best when it provides a light regulatory touch to the digital industry here in the UK. Ofcom will regulate this matter if need be, but it will focus on consumer education and awareness rather than a fundamental shift in what ISPs do best – build out and manage Internet infrastucture. Let’s hope Ed Vaizey, Jeremy Hunt, Ofcom and the rest of the government takes the same approach to website blocking.


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