Government favours light regulation on net neutrality

Communications minister Ed Vaizey has said that ISPs should be free to explore 'flexible' business models, but digital rights campaigners argue that the government is encouraging 'walled gardens'

The UK government has laid out its position on net neutrality, arguing that the issue should remain lightly regulated and that competition between ISPs will ensure future openness.

Speaking at the FT World Telecoms Conference on Wednesday, communications minister Ed Vaizey claimed that a "lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people". However, Open Rights Group chief Jim Killock responded by saying the government seemed to want to "encourage 'walled gardens' of ISP-provided services".

The net neutrality debate has multiple layers. On one level, the argument deals with whether ISPs can manage the traffic that flows over their networks — they already do this, and many people agree that they have to do so. However, the more emotive issue is that of whether ISPs can charge content providers for prioritising their traffic over that of rivals.

TalkTalk, BT and O2 have all said they would like to levy such charges on content providers but, although there is nothing to stop them doing so under current regulations, none of them has actually tried it. TalkTalk's regulatory chief, Andrew Heaney, told ZDNet UK on 28 September that content providers "might turn round and say they're not paying and might withdraw their service, and our customers might not like it and might leave us".

According to Vaizey, ISPs should be able to manage their networks to ensure a good service and have flexibility in business models. The communications minister said the government would take into account several factors before considering any net neutrality proposals. Consumers should be able to access any legal content or service and content providers should be able to "innovate", he said, adding that providers should be clear about their traffic-management policies and the impact these will have on consumers.

"The government is no fan of regulation and we should only intervene when it is clearly necessary to deliver important benefits for consumers," Vaizey said.

In a blog post on 19 October, BBC digital chief Erik Huggers said it was a "worrying development" that some ISPs wanted to move away from a neutral net model. "For companies that can pay for prioritisation, their traffic will go in a special fast lane," he wrote. "But for those that don't pay? Or can't pay? By implication, their traffic will be de-prioritised and placed in the slow lane. Discriminating against traffic in this way would distort competition to the detriment of the public and the UK's creative economy."

On Wednesday, the Open Rights Group — an organisation devoted to preserving digital rights — echoed the same fears. "Money and commercial interest can easily override public interest if we do not assert it," Killock wrote in a blog post. "In this case, unlike the USA, there is a degree of collusion going on which may lead our governments down a dangerous path.

"It seems that regulators like Ofcom and ministers of our governments do not see the future of the internet as being best served through such competition, but wish to encourage 'walled gardens' of ISP-provided services," continued Killock. "This might suit ISPs who want income, or governments who want easy answers to pay for network investment, but it will not serve customers of services well."

Killock added that walled gardens "tip the balance against innovation, towards established copyright industry players", and warned this could eventually restrict freedom of speech.