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UK.gov backs ISPs on charging content providers, throttling P2P

Carter kicks net neutrality corpse

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Digital Britain The government today rejected any prospect of US-style "net neutrality" laws to prevent ISPs from charging online content providers for traffic prioritisation, or from restricting bandwidth-hungry protocols such as BitTorrent.

In his Digital Britain report, Lord Carter said givings ISPs the ability to charge for guaranteed service levels to content providers - such as asking the BBC to pay for delivering iPlayer traffic - could promote innovation and investment in networks.

"Net neutrality is sometimes cited by various parties in defence of internet freedom, innovation and consumer choice," the report says. "The debate over possible legislation in pursuit of this goal has been stronger in the US than in the UK.

"Ofcom has in the past acknowledged the claims in the debate but have [sic] also acknowledge that ISPs might in future wish to offer guaranteed service levels to content providers in exchange for increased fees.

"In turn this could lead to differentiation of offers and promote investment in higher speed access networks. Net neutrality legislation might prevent this sort of innovation."

In the US, Barack Obama is committed to introducing net neutrality laws, having said on the campaign trail: "I think [charging for guaranteed service] destroys one of the best things about the internet - which is that there is this incredible equality there."

The debate has been stoked across the Atlantic by cable giant Comcast's secret BitTorrent blocking, which it initially denied. The move led to it being hauled before a public hearing by the FCC, the US equivalent of Ofcom, and censured.

It's recently been reported that Obama will anoint prominent net neutrality advocate Julius Genachowski as FCC chair. Regulatory backup for anti-traffic-prioritisation legislation would be assured under Genachowski's leadership.

In the UK, net neutrality was stillborn as an issue, but Carter was happy today to give its corpse a kick. As well as advocating tiered content delivery, he backed "traffic management"; the somewhat euphemistic industry term for BitTorrent throttling.

"The government has yet to see a case for legislation in favour of net neutrality. In consequence, unless Ofcom find network operators or ISPs to have Significant Market Power and justify intervention on competition grounds, traffic management will not be prevented," the Digital Britain report says.

Google has lobbied determinedly for net neutrality in Europe, wishing to avoid paying ISPs for carrying its traffic. The BBC meanwhile is seemingly warming to Carter's vision of tiered service levels, as long as the consumer carries the burden. In a recent interview, BBC iPlayer chief Anthony Rose suggested an optional high quality iPlayer charge on top of broadband subscriptions.

"What we need to do is to create the iPlayer services at different quality levels and then let ISPs offer different bandwidth propositions to users," he said.

"For example, the user can get a good quality iPlayer service for, say, £10 a month but for £20, a much better iPlayer quality would be available."

It's too early to tell whether such packages will ever reach the market, let alone whether anyone would be interested - but it is clearer than ever that nobody in government would object. ®

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