Net Neutrality-Are we headed for a ‘two-speed’ internet?

29 11 2010

“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.

Sean Kirwan


The Labour Manifesto: Reaction

12 04 2010

Today Labour launched their Manifesto for the 2010 General Election.

Labour provided us with a late (and, frankly, slightly unexpected) lurch towards the post-bureaucratic agenda in recent months., digital inclusion, and Brown’s ‘digital economy’ speech have largely outweighed the Digital Economy Bill saga, and positioned Labour as a nascent post-bureaucratic party.

Their manifesto also contains a few hints in right direction. First, as William Heath noted a small step in the direction of Vendor Relationship Management (VRM) over at MyDex:

“We will explore how to give citizens direct access to the data held on them by public agencies, so that people can use and control their own personal data in their interaction with service providers.”

There were a number of other very positive soundbites for the PBA agenda, even if they were light on detail. A post-bureaucratic agenda should be adaptive, flexible and localised, so a lack of detail isn’t of itself ‘wrong’. How far you believe any government will act in pursuit of laudable aims is subject to personal interpretation.

Bits we liked:

“We will now publish a Domesday Book of all non-personal datasets held by gov’t…with a default assumption that these will be made public” This is very similar to the the Tory position, but does not go so far as our call for a Freedom of Data Act.

“Citizens should be able to compare local services, demand improvements, choose between providers, and hold government to account.” This is absolutely fundamental to moving government into the post-bureaucratic age. It is interesting that Labour have chosen to frame the policy in terms of competition and accountability, when they might just have easily pointed at the PBA’s potential to empower people to combine local services and develop the role of the third sector – rather than just extracting the maximum value from suppliers.

“We will open up government, embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services.” This is perhaps the most encouraging language we have seen from Labour that they have come to terms with what the PBA really means (or could really mean) for government. The phrase “embedding access to information and data into the very fabric of public services” is an elegant explanation of the first step of post-bureaucratic government.

Bit we didn’t like:

“We will update the intellectual property framework that is crucial to the creative industries and take further action to tackle online piracy.” You can almost hear the record industry’s lobbyists’ whispers in this line. The Digital Economy Bill fiasco was bad enough, but to validate and then threaten to build upon it suggests that Labour may only support an agenda as far as a union or vested interest will let them. Unsavoury.

“Digital government also demands digital inclusion. Sowe will build on our network of UK Online centres and public libraries to spread free internet access points within the community, and develop new incentives for users to switch to online services.” The single occurrence of ‘digitial inclusion’ within the 76-page manifesto; no commitment to spending; no suggestion about the kind of ‘incentives’ that might be used. This simply does not stack up for a party that also wants to “save money for taxpayers as we switch services over to digital-only delivery”. The ‘digitial divide’ is very, very real, and Labour have moved digital inclusion into the ‘nice-to-have’ category. Internet access is now a fundamental utility, without which a child growing up the UK will suffer. As usual, the poorest and least-educated (who need and could benefit from it most) are in danger of being left behind.

Ali Unwin ( @aliunwin)

When Vision and Technology are Not Aligned

10 12 2009

Excellent piece over at by Jerry Fishenden, co-founder of the Centre for Technology Policy Research and visiting senior fellow at the London School of Economics.

Fishenden’s short piece focuses on what they government has achieved in the last ten years, with approximately £100-£120bn spent on ICT. There have been horror headlines about the NHS IT system which has ballooned way beyond budget and is still not operational; and government IT procurement remains non-transparent and remarkably poor value.

The CIO and CTO Councils have been, in Fishenden’s opinion, a success in the way that they have brought together IT specialists from different departments to discuss ideas. This is something approaching the fabled ‘joined-up-government’ that has hitherto been as mythical as the Holy Grail itself.

The real strength of Fishenden’s assessment comes when he hones in on the greatest flaw in the government’s ICT strategy:

“It considers technical issues in isolation, adrift from the necessary public policy context and vision.”

This is why we have seen precious little improvement, and is a problem that the government is not unique in experiencing. The successful collaboration between vision, strategy, and technical capability has plagued private companies as much as government. It is a chicken-and-egg situation: technical staff cannot provide the appropriate systems or technology, because they do not know (or cannot see) the wider implications for management; management do not understand the technological capabilities to create the optimum strategy and vision.

One of the questions which is fundamental to the speed and ease of transition into the post-bureaucratic age will be how well government is able to release the potential of technology as a means of delivering cheaper, more accessible, more transparent government.

‘The twenty-first century is a terrible time to be a control freak.’

7 12 2009

Jared Cohen, author, thinker, and State Department Staffer gave an excellent keynote address to the Legatum Institute on Global Opportunities: Youth, Technology and Partnership in a Networked Century.

Jared spoke passionately about his experiences in Iran, where out of a population of 70m, 67% are under the age of 30. ‘Technology is making young people realise their value as a demographic…a demographic de facto party.’ Youth activism is not based on party, or even split by cause as NGOs tend to be.

The ‘new virtual commons that defines the world today’ was one of Jared’s central ideas. There is a
tsunami of change and development at hands of connection technologies’, but it is certain that ‘the tools won’t define the movements, but will enable the movements.’ He presented the ‘apathetic masses‘ as ‘game-changing’, citing examples in Moldova, India, South America, and Iran. This challenges the commonplace view that ‘slactivism’ is a hindrance to ‘real’ movements, as it only panders to the conscience of those ‘apathetic masses’. The scale of technological change is particularly striking: 4.6bn in the world have mobile phones;in Pakistan in 2000, 750 thousand had them – now the figure is 78 million.

Another key feature of technology’s impact on society is the fact that those who populate ‘civil society’ (i.e. activists, politicians, charity workers, NGOs) and those who are less interested in such things, all inhabit the same space online. ‘They hang out together’, as Jared put it. The anonymity of online activity has several advantages. First, it protects activists from oppressive regimes; second, it prevents discrimination by age (many of the post-Mumbai bombing demonstrations were orchestrated by a 14 year old boy); and finally, it allows for mass-awareness in a way that produces change, which offline activites – however well-intentioned – never could.

Jared presented a new take on how ‘civil society’ can operate, contrasting the mass-communicating, mass-activist, interconnected world of today with the NGOs and Charities of 1989. The Berlin Wall – both a literal agent and symbol of division – has been replaced by the firewalls of authoritarian regimes around the globe. These firewalls are very difficult to maintain, and often the generational gap (in terms of technology as much as demographics) means that the authorities tend to chase rather than dominate.

Jared also championed the development of ‘more inclusive partnerships’, between NGOs, private companies, and the connected masses, as the most effective means of initiating and sustaining positive change in the world.