So Ed Vaizey took 2500 words to essentially say that Net Neutrality contradicts the Conservatives’ views on a laissez-faire, “lightly-regulated” Internet and will not be enshrined in law, in a speech dressed up to confuse and sow doubt. This is a tremendous mistake, a sop to big business and a danger to freedom of expression.
Allowing ISPs to charge different amounts for access to different content is abhorrent. It is clear that large businesses will be able to pay the subscription fees which ensure that their content is delivered to the widest number of people at the fastest speeds. The little guys, the independent bloggers and the startups won’t have access to the capital required to pay additional dues. Remember that content providers already pay access fees to ISPs. These scale naturally with the size of the company. The more popular you are, the more bandwidth you require and the more you pay. Expecting newly formed companies to pay additional fees on top of that, just to ensure that consumers receive a high-quality service will stifle innovation, reduce creative output and reduce the economic benefits that Ed Vaizey is so keen to champion.
It will also lower the value proposition for releasing an Internet product to the UK.
Other countries have already enshrined Net Neutrality in law. If you had a new and innovative, but bandwidth-hungry product, would you release it in a country where everyone was guaranteed reasonable access, or a country where only those subscribers who could afford to see it would? Social products in particular, which thrive on the basis that everyone is connected, would suffer. You’d never start a Facebook in a country where there was a possibility half of the available audience wouldn’t see it or have high-quality access.
Companies will have to pick which countries they choose to pay for access in, which could leave the UK behind in terms of access to content at reasonable speeds. The UK already languishes behind the US in terms of release dates for media and services (c.f Netflix, Spotify, Google Voice) and this would compound the issue with slower speeds when and if they are finally made available.
For the same reason that companies go overseas to avoid taxation and find cheaper manufacturing options, the UK could become a country where Internet products are only released as an afterthought, and only if the access fees are acceptable. For the few lucky companies that are popular enough to survive, but who don’t want to pay the access fees, It is the subscriber who will inevitably end up subsidising the payments through higher rates.
More insidiously, it will chill dissenting voices. Aside from the massive economic benefits that governments love, the key innovation of the Internet has been to democratise ideas, knowledge and the power to influence. The wild nature of the Internet means you can find supporting or dissenting opinions on every subject you care to think of. The Conservatives conflate “lightly-regulated content” in terms of freedom of expression, which is A Good Thing, with “lightly-regulated access”, which allows ISPs to pick and choose which content you get to see, which is A Very Bad Thing.
Once you remove the principle of Net Neutrality, there is no barrier to a filtered Internet. The paradox of “lightly-regulated access” is that it inevitably leads to heavily-regulated content. How long do you imagine it will be before ISPs, under pressure from various governments, choose to slow or deny access to important sites like Wikileaks? They may not pay the ISPs to do so, but they have considerable leverage in terms of taxation and licensing. How long before evangelical groups pressure ISPs to do the same to porn sites? From there, it is a small but definitive step to a filtered, sanitised Internet, where you can only see what you should be allowed to see.
Does this sound paranoid and ridiculous? Consider the trialled “Net-Filter” in Australia, designed to prevent access to illegal content. When the blacklist was leaked and published (by Wikileaks, no less), plenty of sites were found to be on it that weren’t illegal, but were simply outside the mainstream tolerance for fetishes and the like. Even some legitimate businesses were excluded. Abuses like this happen even in systems where everyone involved honestly tries to enforce the rules fairly. Introduce a profit motive like “pay for access”, and human nature sadly dictates that freedoms will be impugned.
The only way to ensure those freedoms is to enshrine in law that ISPs have a duty to deliver all content equally, regardless of source.
There is a reason we don’t allow people to pay politicians to ask leading questions or enact legislation (let’s leave aside the iniquities of the extremes of lobbying for now). We expect our politicians to behave in a manner that is good for the people they were elected to represent, and we recognise that allowing them to take money for favours colours their judgement. The analogy holds for ISPs. If we allow them to take money from content providers, they are going to prioritise those providers’ needs first, above other providers, above subscribers’ needs and above the general good.
Free markets are not perfect and are not a universal panacea. See the current state of US healthcare for a cautionary tale.
Expecting market forces to manage the fallout is naive. Rest assured, the ISPs will all take the opportunity to extract more money, if only because they have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their shareholders, and, sadly, that is wholly equated with profit. New ISPs offering net neutral services will not magically pop into existence. For a start, many consumers won’t even know what’s going on. The Internet is a utility, like water, gas and electricity. You turn on a tap and water comes out. You plug in a toaster and start making toast. You connect that funny little cable into the wall and Google appears. How many people actually think about how that all works? It’s a service, it’s there and it works. Do people complain when their lightbulbs flicker? Issues with the Internet are even more subtle. If you can’t get to Twitter, the default response is “Twitter is down”, not “My ISP is broken”. Expecting a mass-revolt from the non-technosavvy people due to poor access is credulous.
Even assuming there was the demand for a Net Neutral ISP, starting such a business is an expensive and complex proposition. With low margins, the only way to survive is to have a large user base. The market approaches saturation in the UK and the costs and hassle for users involved in switching providers are prohibitively high.
Large amounts of startup capital are needed to start an ISP, and they won’t even be playing on a level playing field because the other ISPs will be working from a larger revenue base with the additional dues they are extracting from the content providers.
Once non-neutral ISPs are here, they’re here to stay. Denying a revenue stream from forming is one thing, but ISPs and shareholders will cry foul when you try to take it away again and “lower shareholder value”.
The only solution is Net Neutrality, and it needs to be enshrined in law now. Ed Vaizey must be convinced that he is on the wrong track and that his current thinking represents a clear and present danger to the future of the Internet.