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Ofcom: ISPs can cripple the web as much as they please

Throttling good, net neutrality bad, says watchdog

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

UK regulator Ofcom won't force operators into net neutrality pacts, being happy to rely on competitive pressure to keep the web open, but it does want transparency for customers.

Ofcom's basic position is that network operators can do whatever they like, as long as they let their customers know what they're doing. Anyone advertising "internet access" should indeed be offering access to the majority of the internet, but if they want to host exclusive content, favour particular sources of traffic over others or throttle P2P downloading or anything else they fancy, then that's fine by Ofcom.

The 'net neutrality debate is a heated one, with entrenched ideological opposition on both sides, but in reality the internet is far from neutral already. The larger ISPs increasingly do deals with the big content providers to host their content closer to the edge of their networks, while smaller content providers languish in the depths of the internet and smaller ISPs struggle to compete.

Ofcom's position [PDF] is not only that this is fine and fair, but that it is inevitable, so the question moves on to the best way to deal with the situation. As Ofcom puts it:

The question is not whether traffic management is acceptable in principle, but whether particular approaches to traffic management cause concern.

Accurate estimates of average connection speed will be expected at the point of sale for anyone signing up with an ISP, and providers will be required to advise customers with "information about the impact of any traffic management that is used on specific types of services, such as reduced download speeds during peak times for peer-to-peer software" as well as any blocking of specific services.

How many services can be blocked before a provider loses the right to call its service "internet access" isn't specified, so would come down to a case-by-case discussion.

Not that the regulator is expecting to be called to adjudicate often, there's clearly a hope that self regulation will provide standardised reporting while competitive pressures ensure transparency and accuracy in those reports. Otherwise the regulator will reconsider and might yet legislate. ®

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