The time has come for the UK to join the growing debate surrounding network neutrality, the president of the British Computer Society has told ZDNet.co.uk.
Professor Nigel Shadbolt said on Friday that, because so much of the internet's content is derived from the US, the UK and Europe would be affected by any net neutrality-related decisions made across the Atlantic.
The term "net neutrality" refers, in its most extreme sense, to the idea that all bits are created equal and that internet traffic should under no circumstances be tiered in any way. Opponents to net neutrality argue that certain types of traffic are already necessarily prioritised over other types — VoIP is a frequently used example — and that to mandate net neutrality would limit both that functionality and the ability of ISPs to charge different rates for different connection speeds.
Because internet users in the US tend to have a smaller range of ISPs to choose from than users in the UK, the consensus here has been that net neutrality is a US-centric debate. The UK government and the regulator Ofcom have both argued that, with a competitive UK ISP market to ensure choice and existing EU legislation to protect the customer, UK businesses and consumers have nothing to worry about. However, Shadbolt argues that the time has arrived for the UK and Europe to stop sitting on the fence.
"We might feel that we're happy with the degree of market force and flexibility in the UK, but… what is clear is that some of the major content providers originate out of the US, and if things actually became tiered in any sense we would feel the impact in the UK and the EU," said Shadbolt. "When there are proposals floating around before Congress or whatever, whatever your view, it is required to examine the issues. It is a complex field."
The Bush administration recently made it clear that it saw no need for net neutrality to be enshrined in legislation. A public filing by the Department of Justice suggested that such regulation might "inefficiently skew investment, delay innovation and diminish consumer welfare". However, what worries many content providers in the US is the prospect of ISPs telling them to pay extra to have their traffic prioritised — companies such as Google claim they already pay enough through bandwidth costs on the server side — or even degrading the delivery of certain content types to those users not willing to pay a premium.
"In broad terms, the presumption that content should be equally accessible to all those at the point of being a node on the internet is seen as vital," said Shadbolt. "The other aspect of that is that people are perfectly free to go out and buy superior bandwidth. That's never been argued — nobody's arguing that there should be equivalence there — [but] if you don't keep an eye on this and in some sense monitor it [it becomes] a precedent for partitioning, which becomes more explicitly built into the fabric of the infrastructure."
Shadbolt described as an "injunction" the presumption that the web was "all about making content visibly available to anybody who chooses to take it and not have intrinsically built in a system of ways of applying explicit filtering", but conceded that many people had concerns about potentially heavy-handed net neutrality legislation having a negative effect.
"We can't not have the discussion," added Shadbolt. "It's not as if it's of no relevance to us. What happens in the US will make its way here. Regulation can have a long reach in a different way than people think."