I'm starting to get very annoyed at some elements of the net neutrality brigade. This is mainly because I am more-or-less part of that group — I don't believe ordinary internet users should see their services restricted or degraded because of commercial deals struck between ISPs and their preferred content providers — and I fear the important issues are getting buried in deluges of hysteria.
As far as UK neutrality goes, the first wild overreaction was that which greeted Ed Vaizey's speech in November, in which he said a "lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy, and good for people", and the government "should only intervene when it is clearly necessary to deliver important benefits for consumers". Almost everyone took this tepid statement of not-very-much as heralding a nightmarish shift against net neutrality, with the communications minister practically ordering ISPs to start holding the BBC and YouTube to ransom.
All Vaizey really said was that the government should hold off legislating against a problem that doesn't exist yet. That it is not an existing problem is not the result of any particular government stance — as TalkTalk's regulatory chief has quite straightforwardly stated, if the ISP went to a content provider and demanded money for prioritising their content over that of rivals, that content provider "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". Which is precisely what is meant by competition pre-empting regulation.
Now everyone's gone crazy about the revelation that BT Wholesale has built a product called Content Connect, access to which will be sold on to BT Wholesale's ISP customers. According to way too many otherwise respectable outlets, this sets the stage for a "two-tier net" or "two-tier web", depending on who you read.
Let's have a look at Content Connect. It's a content delivery network (CDN), much like those from providers such as Akamai and Level3. This means a bunch of servers located in areas of high congestion, where extra bandwidth is needed to push through (generally video) content at high quality. CDNs are already widely used by content providers such as the BBC, which relies on CDNs to support iPlayer across the UK, and by ISPs.
BT has simply built its own CDN, which — seeing as the company utterly dominates the country's wholesale broadband market — it is in a good position to market as part of an end-to-end, we-can-guarantee-you-X-level-of-service package for other ISPs. This spring, it will start selling Content Connect access to BT Retail, which will use the CDN to deliver iPlayer on its BT Vision IPTV platform. Other ISPs will also be able to use Content Connect to push through heavy content, or they can just use the same rival CDNs they already use.
I don't see how this leads to the creation of a two-tier web/net/whatever. My fear regarding net neutrality is that, within the paradigm of one network, one service gets boosted to the detriment of another. If someone wants to build spare capacity for a specific service, which will result in no change to the quality of rival services, I really couldn't care less — that sounds like a sensible business practice to me.
Some people within the net neutrality brigade have the tendency to pretend that the internet really is neutral. Well, CDNs have been in use for a long time, and guess what, the internet hasn't fallen apart. Content providers with deep pockets spend money to support high usage levels (this is actually one of my main arguments against the enemies of 'net neutrality' — ISPs who want to charge high-volume content providers usually pretend that those content providers are getting some kind of 'free ride', but that really isn't the case). Smaller upstarts either get round such issues with clever peering technology, or they get investment so they can buy CDN capacity.
So please, I beg you all, stop squealing about the little things, and the things that always were and always will be. It's great that more people are starting to get worked up about net neutrality, because there are real battles to be fought, but this is not one of them. When it looks like your ISP might throttle Facebook or block YouTube, fight. When networks are manipulated for the purposes of censorship or monopoly, fight. But when a company develops a service of a type that is already widely used, pause and think before you shout.
PS — I strongly recommend reading this post by Mo McRoberts, which nicely explains why Content Connect is not a great sign for an ISP industry that is far too reliant on BT Wholesale...