Vaizey wins cautious praise on net neutrality

The government won cautious praise for its approach to net neutrality, otherwise known as the open internet, at a public all-party parliamentary committee debate on Tuesday.

The government won cautious praise for its approach to net neutrality, otherwise known as the open internet, at a public all-party parliamentary committee debate on Tuesday.

The meeting was a sequel to communications minister Ed Vaizey's round table meeting with industry representatives on 16 March.

Vaizey pledged support for an internet environment in which users were able to access all legal content, there was no discrimination against rival content providers, and ISPs' traffic management policies were clear and transparent.

Chairman of the Digital Economy committee (DEAPP) Eric Joyce (Labour) said he found it hard to criticise the government's efforts so far.

Dominique Lazanski of the Taxpayer's Alliance said it was to Vaizey's credit that he was prepared to listen to all parties. "This is very positive, and unlike the previous government," she said.

Jean-Jacques Sahel, Skype's director of government affairs, praised Vaizey's willingness to get a full range of opinions expressed at the round table.

Speakers shared a broad consensus with Vaizey's three conditions. Robert Hammond, head of postal and digital communications for ConsumerFocus, summed this up, saying the internet was now the "new utility" and central to most consumer transactions with government, commerce and private lives.

He and others acknowledged a need for network operators and ISPs to be able to manage traffic for law enforcement and quality of service reasons. "But using traffic management to discriminate against rival services is not good at all," he said.

Several speakers said the Broadband Stakeholders Group memorandum of understanding on traffic management practices applied by network operators was inadequate. "The transparency revealed there is not enough," Hammond said.

Hammond said consumers were worried that the development of a managed internet service would be at the expense of the present "best effort" policy applied by most.

Sahel said three of the UK's five mobile network operators banned or choked Skype and streaming video, which forced customers to use the operator's own voice, video and instant message services. Customers had already paid to use their data allowances, so operators had no business telling them how they should use them, he said.

Lazanski said the best option for customers was for the government to create an attractive investment climate for ISPs and network operators. Scrapping the fibre tax and enforcing the sale of dark (unmanaged) fibre access would be big steps towards that, she said.

Open Rights Group director Jim Killock said customers found it hard to switch ISPs. According to research, of the 15% of consumers who said they had thought of changing, only 3% had done so. "It's in the ISPs' interests to make it as hard as possible to switch," he said.

He and other speakers were amenable to ISPs regulating themselves, but it had to be meaningful, transparent and increase competitiveness, they said. The same applied to quality of service promises.

Former BSG chairman Kip Meek, speaking for Everything Everywhere, the joint Orange/T-Mobile mobile network operator, said the issues were network access and bottlenecks in the network.

He said any bottlenecks needed to be watched carefully to ensure they were not abused. But this had been the concern of telecoms regulators for 100 years, he said.

Several speakers worried that ISPs would charge content providers for access to their customers, alternatively, that they would restrict or ban material from content providers with whom they did not have a distribution contract.

The BBC's policy controller James Heath said the BBC paid to have its content on the internet. But the market was changing very quickly, he said.

This led one delegate to speculate privately whether this might soon lead to the content providers insisting on ISPs paying to distribute their content. Content owners like music and film distributors had always maintained strict control over distribution and retail prices, and so far had shown little appetite to change, he said.

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