Communications regulator Ofcom is asking for comment on internet traffic management practices - or net neutrality - just as mobile network operator O2's plan to cap data traffic on its network comes into force.
Ofcom is worried that network operators and ISPs could engage in anti-competitive behaviour and suppress or degrade some content from providers.
Network operators face massive growth in data traffic. Worst hit are mobile network operators, as smartphones become more popular. This is leading to congestion in networks. To provide a better "average" service, operators are discriminating between some types of data traffic, and/or pricing some traffic types differently.
This goes against the basic principle of the internet, namely that all bits are equal, or that the net is neutral in terms of the way it treats traffic, and internet service providers and network operators are "mere carriers" of the traffic.
Ofcom's consultation calls for comment on traffic management techniques that allow network operators and ISPs to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to guarantee bandwidth and to block or degrade the quality of some content.
Net neutrality advocates argue that traffic management by network operators and ISPs is discrimination that could harm economic competitiveness and growth, free speech and other "fundamental freedoms and rights".
The European Telecoms Package passed earlier this year included legislation designed to prevent the degradation of services and blocking or slowing traffic. The UK is required to adopt these measures next year. This could get Ofcom to impose a minimum quality of service on the internet, and to increase consumer transparency into any traffic management methods adopted by service providers.
Ofcom CEO Ed Richards said the net was increasing central to modern life.
"At the heart of this discussion is how to ensure that traffic management practices are transparent and how to ensure that traffic management is not used for anti-competitive discrimination," he said.
Net neutrality has been a hot topic in the US and Canada for several years. The US, Canada, France, Norway and Sweden have adopted or are considering some form of regulatory requirements relating to traffic management.
The European Commission has said that it will publish a consultation on net neutrality soon.
The consultation closes on 9 September 2010.