Net neutrality is, by any other name, government regulation.
Don’t let Peter Franklin’s persuasive article yesterday convince you of anything otherwise. I have written about it many times in over the 3 ½ years since this debate kicked off in the UK under the current coalition government (even on ConHome in 2010) and no matter how to you look at the very idea of imposing such regulations on a market is government mission creep to say the least.
There is no threat, no crisis because there never was net neutrality. The very term means so many different things to different people coming from different political points of view that it is hard for even the government to manage and police a term that has no definition.
First it was about Internet traffic prioritisation and then about traffic management. Now the term used is ‘The Open Internet’ which in most ways I agree with especially when it comes to the development of standards, the multi-stakeholder approach to Internet governance and transparency.
Peter uses the term to mean principle of equal and non-discriminatory access and that is yet again something completely different from its original meaning when the phrase was coined by Tim Wu. However you define it, in the UK and indeed most of Europe the issue of net neutrality is one of market failure and lack of competition more than the movement or prioritisation of traffic and data.
But I’m not going to go on about semantics here. What I am going to talk about is the UK’s multi-stakeholder group on net neutrality and the open Internet convened at Minister Ed Vaizey’s request and the work that they have done to ensure that traffic management practices are transparent and understandable, even though only 1 in 10 UK consumers of broadband even know – or care – what traffic management is, according to OFCOM.
Back in 2010 Ed Vaizey convened a meeting on this very issue and it was truly multi-stakeholder. Internet service providers (ISPs), civil society, academics, content providers and experts met to discuss the issue. Out of that meeting an ongoing working group managed by the Broadband Stakeholder Group (BSG) was set up to look at what was actually happening in the area of traffic management and what could be done.
Over the last three years the group has met regularly to work on an agreed upon code of conduct. This group, being truly multi-stakeholder, didn’t all see eye to eye, but reached a consensus on a code that was a balance between consumers’ needs and commercial issues. The BSG’s Traffic Management Transparency Code is not perfect and nor does it have all stakeholders signed up to it, but in a competitive and growing internet access market like the UK it is an excellent example of how to deal with the issue of net neutrality and come up with stakeholder- and industry-led ‘solutions’ to a non-existing problem.
Traffic management isn’t just about commercial interests, but is about infrastructure efficiency and management of scarce resources.
Prioritisation has to occur in order to ensure the delivery of all types of content, from on demand video to emails. Believe it or not, many people – and many of the online gamers that I know – would pay more to have a reliable, guaranteed and fast service.
This isn’t a horrible affront to the Internet as we know it – it is the market signalling the desire for new products at differentiated prices. Ultimately, most of the Internet infrastructure is privately owned and building out the next generation access will cost money. But year on year, mobile phone operators’ investment is increasing while their income is decreasing, so they will have to be able to manage Internet traffic better and faster than before and build out the best infrastructure to compete in the UK market.
Offering differentiated price points and services is part of that model.
All of this means that in the end the very idea that we are going to lose net neutrality is a complete farce. We never had it to begin with – and rightly so. And thanks to a Conservative minister actually doing something conservative for once – that is, letting the stakeholders and the market decide what is best and not the government – we have a model that is being looked at across Europe as an example of effective self-regulation.
None of this matters if you believe that the government should decide how to manage your Internet service provider’s way of doing business. Ultimately, and sadly, Peter Franklin believes this in spite of his protestations otherwise.
Hey, Peter – if you aren’t happy with your broadband terms or service you might want to try one of the other hundreds of ISPs available in the UK. The market provides!