Government to close 'open' internet
18 November 2010
Gary Herman, Chair, NUJ New Media Industrial Council
Communications minister Ed Vaizey has told a the 2010 FT World Telecoms Conference (17 November) that ISPs should be able to charge content providers to prioritise their traffic, thus promising a future two-tier internet with rich organizations dominating the provision of information and other services.
In discussing the idea of 'net neutrality', Vaizey acknowledged contending interpretations of the concept and surveyed different government and supra-governmental approaches. But he reiterated the standard pro-business argument of European regulators – notably Ofcom and the European Commission – that 'light touch regulation' and market competition law would guarantee fairness and equity in network services.
While it is the opinion of the NUJ's New Media Industrial Council that 'net neutrality' is a confused and flawed concept, the alternative as stated by Vaizey – that ISPs and network infrastructure companies "should be allowed to manage their networks to ensure a good customer service" with little or no regulation is, in fact, a recipe for favouring high-value consumer services at the expense of public service.
Without effective public oversight, ISPs and network infrastructure companies will simply favour content providers who can pay for so-called "Quality of service" over those who can't. Vaizey's position on public oversight is summed up in this telling paragraph:
"The recently revised EU Framework for Electronic Communications has given Regulators (such as OFCOM) powers to intervene in the market to determine (if it is appropriate) "Quality of service" guidelines. But these are back stop powers. Competition in the market, combined with transparency, the ability to switch, and an overall adherence to the sort of principles I have outlined, should render such intervention unnecessary."
In arguing for "The Open Internet" (the title of Vaizey's speech), the minister concluded:
"In order for the Internet to continue as the open, innovative force for good that it has been over the past 20 years it is essential that … content providers and applications have open access to consumers and vice versa. But it also means allowing ISPs and networks to innovate and experiment with new ways of delivering what consumers want so we can ensure continued investment in the infrastructure that delivers the content and applications we all use."
The NUJ's New Media Industrial Council believes that internet services depend on three broad levels of provision – networks, service providers and content providers. A handful of companies (notably BT, Virgin and, increasingly, mobile phone providers) integrate some or all of these levels, and will benefit most from Vaizey's position. In the longer term, Vaizey's 'open internet' will promote the interests of a small coterie of dominant network suppliers upon whom independent ISPs and content providers depend, thus distorting the market and reducing access rather than preserving openness.