Net neutrality… still buffering

Before the soaring popularity of services like Netflix, watching a film at home usually required a trip to the rental store. The ease at which a film can now be accessed is, however, often matched with the unavoidable sense of frustration when the film is ‘buffering’.

Would we feel happier if our favourite service, say Netflix, was granted a priority lane when travelling through the internet to our home? This question goes to the root of the debate surrounding net neutrality.

What is net neutrality?

The principle of net neutrality is that all internet traffic should be treated equally. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would not have the ability to restrict an individual’s access to certain sites or accelerate access to particular sites that have paid ISPs – an internet ‘fast lane’. Nor would ISPs have the right to limit the access speed of a high data user, known as ‘throttling’.

Net neutrality matters. Earlier this year the US FCC approved rules following a public consultation that received over three million comments. In India, a paper published concerning net neutrality triggered more than 800,000 emails in just one week demanding a free internet.

Supporters argue that start-ups cannot compete with existing services that have paid for a fast lane.  Others argue services using large chunks of bandwidth should pay extra to carry their content, and individuals hogging bandwidth resources ought to be throttled to ensure their extensive use is not at the expense of others.

Natasza Slater
Natasza Slater, Howard Kennedy

Does the UK have net neutrality?

There is no legislation requiring net neutrality in the UK or at EU-level. However, many leading ISPs have signed up to a voluntary code; agreeing not to discriminate against competitive content nor block access to lawful content, and to make traffic management policies transparent.

Unlike the US where choice of ISP can be limited, Ofcom considers competition between ISPs in the UK ensures consumers are able to understand traffic management policies and switch ISPs.

What is the future of net neutrality?

Earlier this year, updated proposals for the EU Connected Continent Regulation were published.

The Regulation hopes to establish an ‘open internet’, yet carves out agreements to deliver a service which requires ‘a specific level of quality’. Many interpret this as purported legalisation of fast lanes; a key breach of net neutrality.

The proposed Regulation shall now be negotiated with the European Parliament; which may prove challenging following a recent open letter from MEPs condemning the weakened proposals.

Until then, it seems the future of net neutrality in the UK is currently in a state of ‘buffering’.

Natasza Slater is a trainee at Howard Kennedy

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