“My first and overriding priority is an open internet where consumers have access to all legal content”. These were the words of Ed Vaizey to the Telegraph last Friday defending his position on net neutrality laid out in his speech on 17 November.
But does this really constitute a free internet as laid out by Tim Berners-Lee in 2006: “freedom of connection, with any application, to any party, (as) the fundamental social basis of the internet and the society based on it.”
Ed Vaizey stated in his speech that: “We have got to continue to encourage the market to innovate and experiment with different business models and ways of providing consumers with what they want. This could include the evolution of a two sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”
It is this ‘two-speed’ internet that raises the concerns. By allowing ISPs to differentiate between content on the basis of payment the internet will cease to be the level playing field that has defined it so far, and in many ways framed its success.
The effects of this would be twofold: The proposals would damage innovation (by unfairly disadvantaging start-ups) and also freedom of speech (by making capital a factor in publication and promulgation of views). ORG director Jim Killock blasts this approach, highlighting that “money and commercial interest can easily over-ride public interest if we do not assert it.”
In reply, it has been argued that the greater choice of ISP in the UK would allow market competition to regulate any abuses of the proposal, while Ofcom provides a regulatory check. Indeed, the BBC is already considering one market mechanism to such effect – a traffic light system for rating how your ISP is handling its iPlayer traffic. That is a good idea in principle – if, that is, consumers are willing to shop around to get a better service. The reality, though, is that not everybody can be bothered – which is why letting net neutrality go by the board is such a troubling idea.
Moreover, picking through Vaizey’s words, he does still appear open to the idea of priority access for websites who pay ISPs for the privilege, though he’s not happy with the idea of blocking out competitors’ services altogether. This will still constitute a non-neutral internet.
Although it is clearly important to generate new revenue for ISP investment in the internet infrastructure that is so important to business and social interaction today, the government has to seriously consider how this impacts its long-term goals of a digital economy and the accompanying promotion of technological innovation.