Net neutrality

et neutrality: what is it and what does it mean?

‘Net neutrality’ is a controversial topic. It means treating everything on the web equally – but is it an ideal that can be achieved?

By Matt Warman, Consumer Technology Editor

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During Barack Obama’s election campaign, the future president’s use of technology was much documented. But it was one specific policy that won him the hearts and minds of Silicon Valley: he supported the idea of so-called “net neutrality”. Such was the heat surrounding this thorny issue that it made headlines around the world. Obama was not only, so the spin went, a man of the internet age, he even understood the details.

Now, however, it is Google, along with American wireless provider Verizon, that is striving to lead the debate on an issue that many argue will define the nature of the web for generations to come. Obama’s strident words on the campaign trail, delivered famously at Google’s Mountain View headquarters in 2007, sound optimistic. “I will take a back seat to no one in my commitment to network neutrality,” he said, “because once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose. We have to ensure free and full exchange of information and that starts with an open internet.”

Net neutrality is, in short, the idea that all web traffic, from video to email and beyond, should be treated equally – as is the case now. On one side of the argument, service providers want to provide innovative services but say they need the public to pay for them if they are to be economically viable. On the other side, as so often with the internet, there are the philosophers: those who say it is a point of principle that the internet should be freely available to all content.

The arguments do not, however, boil down so neatly when looked at in any detail. Where is the motivation for providers to invest in the new infrastructure that the web needs if they are to be tightly regulated in how they can sell what they’ve built? Critics say that such a point should merely be a motivation to make sure the regulations are drawn up correctly. That’s what the Federal Communications Commission in America has been trying to do for months, and last week it announced that it was giving up because the various sides could not come to a meaningful agreement.

Conversely, free web campaigners argue that the next Google will only come if “two guys in a garage” get equal treatment with corporate behemoths who are already established and influential. In aggregate, however, add together all the guys in garages, many of whom are working on, say, bandwidth-intensive video and file-sharing applications, and the total network requirement is enormous. It’s easy to see why internet service providers would rather they could ask users to pay for extra services, or have certain products subsidised by advertisers.

Thus the internet, founded on egalitarian ideas that made it a web of servers and allowed it to be collectively much greater than the sum of its parts, is at a crossroads. It must plot a course between economics and philosophy, and in between stands an apparently insuperable mass of politics.

Regulation itself, however, is controversial anyway. It is precisely the unregulated nature of the web that has made it what it is. As pressure group Hands Off the Internet puts it: “The array of consumer-friendly choices could never have developed with the freedom and the speed we see today if the federal government had taken a heavy-handed regulatory approach. Such over-regulation would have created uncertainty and confusion in the marketplace, stifling innovation.”

In Britain, communications minister Ed Vaizey says that “net neutrality is an issue that we’ll have to address. Broadly speaking, we’re in favour, but at the moment the Government’s in receive mode.” Communications regulator Ofcom began a consultation in June, but it would be surprising if anyone outside America was able to take a meaningful lead on the issue. Launching the discussion document, Ofcom chief executive Ed Richards said: “New EU rules give regulators a clear responsibility to address the emerging issues around traffic management.”

But it’s easy to talk about “supporting vibrant, innovative content production and network deployment” in theory when the practice is likely to be years away.

All told, therefore, the heat of the net neutrality debate has yet to generate more light than heat – while bloggers and pressure groups rant, the real players, from Google to major internet service providers, must thrash out compromises that will profoundly alter their respective futures.

British consumers, admittedly, are in a slightly better position: our market is more competitive than America’s, for now at least, and so businesses and consumers can more easily find commercially viable deals. But the risk, in due course, is that one ISP might, for instance, offer parts of the web at a higher quality than other, or not at all. To many, that sounds dangerously like censorship.


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