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Gatekeeping the internet: Is UK net neutrality under threat?

As Ofcom reviews the UK's net neutrality regulations, we explore whether the web is a level playing field for all businesses

This article originally appeared in issue 22 of IT Pro 20/20, available here. To sign up to receive each new issue in your inbox, click here

Often referred to as the 'open internet', the web as we know it today is based on the principle that all traffic should be treated equally, and that every piece of data that passes over a network has the same value. 

Digital rights activists have vocally defended net neutrality since the web’s inception, while internet service providers (ISPs), by contrast, have long lobbied for this principle to end. Many, indeed, are fearful that ISPs already manage traffic over their networks, awarding some packets more bandwidth than others. 

Rules that block this practice, however, already exist in the form of the EU’s Open Internet Access Regulation 2015, which was enshrined into UK law in 2016, and reinforced by the European Union (Withdrawl) Act 2018. These rules aim to protect users while guaranteeing a level playing field for service providers and innovators, with Ofcom tasked with enforcing these principles. The status quo may soon change, however, with the regulator launching a review into how the UK’s net neutrality framework is working, and whether COVID-19 has spurred any need for change.  

The price of access

The head of public affairs with the Internet Service Provider Association (IPSA), Andrew Kernahan, backs Ofcom’s call for evidence, suggesting it’s also a wise move following Brexit. “As well as looking at the changing internet dynamics, such as the concentration of a small number of large platforms or the size of gaming updates,” he tells IT Pro, “it should also look at where the current rules may actually act as a brake on the ability of providers to support customers.”

ISPs have long criticised the way net neutrality limits their capacity to optimise the traffic they carry, with companies like BT and Zen regarding it as needless oversight. In March, for example, the CEO of BT’s consumer brands, Marc Allera, reignited the net neutrality debate by suggesting it imposed restrictions on ISPs’ capacity to service the population during COVID-19 – a period of heavy traffic.

He argued that zero-rating, the practice of applying a price of zero to the traffic associated with a particular site, such as educational platforms like BBC Bitesize, was incompatible with net neutrality arrangements. This is because zero-rating attracts much higher traffic to those sites, and drives up costs for ISPs. This practice, Allera added, is unsustainable unless net neutrality rules are adjusted so ISPs can allocate those packets more bandwidth.

COVID-19 highlighted how ISPs came under immense pressure to maintain their services across the UK, with Zen suggesting internet usage surged 78% between March 2020 and March 2021. The shift to mass remote working, too, saw daytime internet access traffic increase by three-quarters, with these figures suggest the playing field for internet access is changing. 

Katharine Trendacosta, associate director of policy and activism with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), however, believes maintaining net neutrality is critical as we move into a post-pandemic world. “What the pandemic has shown is that net neutrality is even more important than it was five years ago,” she tells IT Pro. “We not only need network access we also need the ability to access whatever we need without interference from our service providers.

“What if service providers decided to charge extra for high-speed access to Zoom? Or decide to slow down Zoom access in favour of speeding up access to their own video chat service? In the former, you have people with fewer means without the same level of access. Net neutrality goes beyond the classic concerns of blocking, throttling, and paid prioritisation. It includes any choice a service provider makes regarding access that isn't reasonable network management.”

Gatekeepers of the web

The usage landscape is hugely varied. Massive data users, including content streaming services like Netflix or YouTube, have the commercial clout to demand more bandwidth, which they can afford. A technological divide remains, however, with digital exclusion continuing to pose a barrier to access to essential online services. Nesta research suggests a million adults across Wales and Scotland struggle to afford sufficient access to the internet, for instance. 

As enterprises embrace technologies like 5G, edge computing, and the Internet of Things (IoT), meanwhile, a fast and reliable internet connection underpinning these services is more important than ever. With businesses and ISPs pushing to ensure their packets of information are given higher priority, it puts the core principle of net neutrality under immense pressure. Preserving net neutrality, however, is also about preserving our way of life, Trendacosta adds.

“Even before the pandemic, we saw that net neutrality was intertwined with public safety,” she says. “For example, during the largest wildfire in California history, a fire department found its internet access being throttled despite having an ‘unlimited’ plan. Santa Clara County stated that this “had everything to do with net neutrality”. During the pandemic, usage has spiked, obviously. But the other part of it was that a whole lot of us suddenly found ourselves forced to use certain online services to work, learn, or talk to our healthcare professionals. ISPs being able to leverage that need by charging more for access to either consumers or services would have been catastrophic.”

Shifting sands

In its review, Ofcom will consider how the rules can best serve users’ interests while promoting access and choice and allowing businesses to innovate. The way in which businesses and consumers access the internet has changed drastically since the EU’s Open Access Regulation came into force, with ISPA’s Kernahan explaining a balance must now be struck to alleviate the pressure placed on network providers. 

“The UK broadband market is highly competitive, and scores of providers are investing more than £30 billion to upgrade our broadband infrastructure as data consumption rises each year,” he says. “The market needs to be supported by a regulatory framework that supports investment. Yet, we also have a two-sided market where operators benefit from content platforms, particularly to encourage customers to upgrade to newer gigabit-capable packages.”

The continued expansion of cloud computing and the plethora of hosting services that rely on fast and reliable access to the internet has highlighted the value inherent in each packet of data. With Ofcom’s findings not expected until Spring 2022, it remains to be seen whether the UK’s net neutrality landscape will shift to such an extent that ISPs assume the role of the gatekeepers of the internet.

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