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Regulators and law don't protect UK net neutrality

ISPs can do as they want, as long as they tell you first

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There is no legal barrier in the UK to internet service providers (ISPs) blocking content from website operators who do not pay them. Neither consumer law nor telecoms regulation protects ISP subscribers, technology law podcast OUT-LAW Radio has revealed.

BT last week said that it wanted the operators of web video services to pay it for the cost of maintaining networks powerful enough to handle online video. It said that the BBC and Google should pay it because of the popularity of their iPlayer and YouTube services.

Other major ISPs are said also to be concerned at the infrastructure costs involved in ensuring that subscribers can watch video content, and the remarks raise the prospect of ISPs slowing or even blocking subscribers' access to content from operators which do not pay them.

OUT-LAW Radio investigated whether there was any legal barrier in the UK to an ISP slowing or blocking access to video services such as the iPlayer and found that there are none. As long as an ISP explains its actions in its fair use policies or statements of terms and conditions it is permitted to block whatever it likes.

A spokeswoman for telecoms regulator Ofcom said that ISPs all had to abide by its General Conditions, but that these did not specify that all internet traffic had to be treated equally.

She said that there is a voluntary Code of Practice governing the advertising of broadband speeds, but that this only demands that ISPs inform customers of any traffic shaping or blocking that it engages in.

She said that Ofcom had previously considered the issue of whether such blocking or shaping for reasons other than network management might be unfair to consumers, but had not come to any conclusion.

A lawyer at consumer protection body Which?'s legal division also said that consumers would only have grounds for complaint if a connection was interfered with without notification.

"The Supply of Goods and Services Act relates to their broadband contract so basically there is an obligation there to provide the service that was previously promised and as described," said Stephen McGlade of Which? Legal Services. "If there is any situation where the internet connection is reduced in some way, obviously one would have to look at the service contract, at the terms and conditions, to see what it says in relation to that service agreement."

"They could challenge it if they are deprived of being able to look at this legal content, they could request an alteration to the service and should be looking for some compensation," he said, referring only to situations where an ISP does not give notice of the change.

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