Vaizey: "I don't want to ditch net neutrality"

Communications Minister Ed Vaizey claims he was misunderstood over net neutrality, after comments he made in a speech last week sparked fears that the government planned to back a 'two-tier' Internet.

Net neutrality - the principle that all traffic carried over the Internet, whether it be web pages, VoIP voice traffic, email or streaming video - should be given equal priority, has so far been a guiding principle in the development of the Internet.

Doubt was cast over the doctrine by a passage from a speech Vaizey delivered at a telecoms conference last week, in which he stated:

"Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users... This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service."

But in an article on The Guardian's web site today, Vaizey claims to have been misinterpreted. He told the paper's Technology Blog: "I say 'don't block input' [to the Internet]. It's my first principle."

Vaizey claims his thinking is in step with Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, who has long been an advocate of net neutrality.

Though it doesn't sound as if Berners-Lee is entirely convinced. "There's no passage in [Vaizey's] speech where he says he's against net neutrality," he told The Guardian. "We have discussed it on the phone. But I can't say yet that we're entirely in line."

Berners-Lee has written extensively on the subject of net neutrality, and last week retweeted a link to an interview with Peter Gabriel, in which the rock star and Internet entrepreneur attacked the idea of any watering down of net neutrality.

Berners-Lee has been at pains to point out that his view of net neutrality does not preclude ISPs from offering different service levels to customers, depending on the price they pay - a standard feature of the UK broadband market, where subscribers pay different rates for connection speeds from a few megabits per second to Virgin's recently announced 100Mbit/s premium service.

Where Berners-Lee and Vaizey differ fundamentally is that Vaizey doesn't rule out the notion of ISPs being able to charge content providers in return for giving priority to their services - an idea that has already drawn sharp criticism from a number of sources, including BBC technology chief Erik Huggers.

Last week, Huggers mooted the idea of a 'traffic light' system to let end users know if their ISP is throttling their connection to certain services.