Users deserted over net neutrality

Net neutrality will not be protected in the UK, THINQ has learned in an interview with the telecoms regulator. Users will instead be asked to police the Internet to prevent network operators and ISPs from abusing their positions of power.

Alex Blowers, international director of UK telecoms regulator Ofcom, said in an exclusive interview that the ideal way to regulate the Internet would be for users to “empower themselves” with network monitoring tools.

“We would like to use the wisdom of crowds here rather than think about this as something where the regulator would pursue a very traditional approach to verification of regulatory compliance,” Blowers said.

Ofcom is considering whether it needs to force network operators to comply with net neutrality principles. Blowers, who wrote Ofcom's net neutrality consultation, told us that the regulator was concerned if it slapped a net neutrality policy on network operators, it would be unable to tell whether they were following it.

Ofcom was therefore considering whether a network solution might be found to the network problem. The idea is that one organisation could not possibly hope to police the Internet. But if everyone used network monitoring tools, any operators who abused their position of power over the net would soon be caught.

“Is there a possibility to use network measurement techniques which allow for the identification of certain forms of traffic management,” wondered Blowers. “And is there a way of building on the evidence that already exists to inform consumers, to create a crowd-sourced approach?”

Power to the people

“Can we use the power of well-informed consumers sharing information on the Internet to create some form of early warning system or evidence base for whether traffic management techniques are being used,” Blowers mused.

Network operators have attracted the attention of regulators around the world for their use of traffic management tools that breach the Internet's core technical principles. The net's success is attributed to its equal treatment of all data that passes across it.

Network operators are beginning to employ traffic management tools to discriminate between different sorts of data on the net, to guarantee the uninterrupted flow of things like Internet TV streams; but also to make a fast buck by selling their own content and web applications in competition with all the other content and applications providers who pay to use its network.

Ofcom has a preference for allowing the industry to do what it likes, said Blowers, as long as there is enough competition between network operators to prevent any single one of them from abusing their position of power.

Since the UK telecoms market is competitive, Ofcom will not likely intervene to protect the Internet, he said.

Feathering their own nests

Even if a network operator uses traffic management to give its own content and Internet applications more bandwidth than other Internet firms using their networks, Ofcom would prefer to keep its hands off.

The same goes for wholesale pricing by which network operators will let anyone with the biggest pockets buy the fastest lanes on the Internet, and everyone else will be relegated to the slow lane.

All these things and other forms of net discrimination are fine by Ofcom.

“Whilst one might bear down very hard on overtly anti-competitive arrangements, that might not necessarily lead to the conclusion that all such arrangements by all operators in all scenarios should be forbidden,” said Blowers.

Ofcom is concerned about all these developments. But it will not intervene unless any network operator interfering with Internet traffic also happens to be so powerful that its customers don't have the option of taking their business elsewhere.

“If Acme Telecom decides to direct everybody to Acme Content Services and Applications in exchange for free access,” said Blowers, “a lot of consumers would switch away from that product – unless its a compelling offer.

“So there are some natural natural constraints on discriminatory behaviour in a competitive market which might be foolish but are not anti-competitive in their effect,” said Blowers.

“If our starting assumption is that the market is competitive, transparency can allow consumers to make informed choices between different flavours of traffic management. Then discrimination is less of a problem - at least where we don't have evidence that firms have market power,” he added.

Fly in the ointment

Yet the sneaky history of traffic management and the current growth of these practices creates two problems for the Internet. The first is that Ofcom and other regulators are not omniscient enough to watch the net.

Network operators and ISPs have long "throttled" the bandwidth they make available to applications they don't like. They have in the past sought to inhibit and prohibit: home networks, virtual private networks, streaming video, wifi, personal web servers, voice-over-IP, and peer-to-peer - all applications that subsequently became hugely successful.

Ofcom expects traffic management practices such as throttling to become established widely in the UK within twelve months. Users will be powerless to do anything about it.

Ofcom is already doing what is within its limited power to resolve this problem: it is considering how it might make it easier for consumers to switch internet provider. Then if consumers do use tools to monitor network providers, they can actually do something about it if they don't like what they see.

It is becoming apparent that the second problem is that telecoms regulators don't have the authority to protect net neutrality. That is why the matter has been taken up by the law makers.