Most of the UK's big ISPs have agreed not to discriminate against the traffic of any particular content provider, and to be open with their customers about the types of content that they downgrade or block.
BT, BSkyB, TalkTalk, Three, O2 and others committed themselves to these net-neutrality-related measures in a voluntary code of practice that was published on Wednesday. Virgin Media, Vodafone and Everything Everywhere have refused to sign the Open Internet Code of Practice, despite having supported a predecessor to the code last year.
"Signatories to this code support the concept of the open internet and the general principle that legal content, applications and services, or categories thereof should not be blocked," the new code begins.
"Whilst products that offer full internet access will be the norm, in order to support product differentiation and consumer choice, ISPs retain the ability to offer alternative types of products," it continues. "In instances where certain classes of legal content, applications and/or services are unavailable on a product signatories to this code will not use the term 'internet access' to describe or market such products; and ensure that any restrictions are effectively communicated to consumers."
The code also states that signatories will not manage traffic "in a manner that targets and degrades the content or application(s) of specific providers", and that they "recognise the importance" of the so-called "best efforts internet".
The best efforts internet is what most people know as "the internet". However, it is a differentiation worth making, as ISPs are increasingly developing managed services. These are services such as IPTV and even machine-to-machine communications, which use the internet but do not provide open access to it.
The new code strikes a balance between the evolution of such services and the need to protect consumers from a different kind of traffic management, where ISPs try to extract money from content providers in return for prioritising their traffic over that of the best efforts internet.
"This voluntary agreement is great news for consumers," communications minister Ed Vaizey said in a statement. "It marks a significant commitment from the leading ISPs to uphold the principles of an open internet and gives certainty to their customers."
In March 2011, the UK's ISPs signed a Transparency Code, agreeing to be open about their traffic management policies — in other words, to tell their customers when they block or throttle certain types of traffic, such as VoIP. In November, the regulator Ofcom told the ISPs that they still had to make this information easier for the average person to understand.
The European Commission has been another source of pressure on the ISPs. Earlier this week, digital agenda commissioner Neelie Kroes launched a consultation on net neutrality, as a precursor to new regulations.
While the Open Internet code can be seen as an attempt to prove ISPs can get their house in order without regulation, the holdouts are significant. Virgin Media is, with 20 percent market share, the second biggest ISP in the UK. Everything Everywhere is the company behind both the T-Mobile and Orange brands — as Vodafone has also not signed, this means only two of the big five network operators have committed to openness.
Vodafone claims it did not sign because of the wording of the code, particularly the fact that it would commit the operator to saying some of its mobile broadband services do not offer 'internet access'. Vodafone blocks its 'pay-as-you-browse' customers from accessing Skype or peer-to-peer services, for example.
"The language chosen by the signatories is impractical and does not reflect the services enjoyed by millions of mobile phone users every day. We have a range of internet access plans and provide customers with full details of the products and services that can be accessed with each plan," Vodafone said in a statement.
Like Vodafone, Everything Everywhere pointed out that it had signed the Transparency Code, so it was at least in support of "the principle of the open internet". However, it suggested that the Open Internet code was in some way premature.
"As the market and content delivery models are still evolving, we believe it is too early to know how a code of this type will affect customers' internet experience, but it is something that we will continually review," Everything Everywhere said.
Virgin Media also claimed the code was too fuzzy. "These principles remain open to misinterpretation and potential exploitation so, while we welcome efforts to reach a broad consensus to address future potential issues, we will be seeking greater clarity before we consider signing," it said.