Why should businesses care about Net neutrality?

Most or all of the UK’s major ISPs will shortly reveal the true nature of their traffic management policies thanks to a new voluntary code of practice announced by The Broadband Stakeholder Group.

The code would mean that broadband providers who favour charging content providers such as YouTube or the BBC for prioritising their web traffic would have to do so openly and transparently, fully informing consumers who are then left better placed to make a judgement.

Prioritisation however could degrade content which does not come from a paying provider, a prospect which smaller businesses and users see as highly threatening to the internet as we know it. But would the loss of net neutrality mean the little guy loses out?

The government and the European Commission seem to think so and they are seeking to protect small and medium enterprise (SME). Both have warned broadband providers and industry to ensure that consumers retain access to all legal content and services.

The Commission also outlined three minimum requirements which any future proposals must meet: Openness, transparency and support for innovation and investment.

In the US net neutrality is a highly divisive issue. Republicans argue it would stifle innovation, democrats argue it is necessary for innovation to thrive.

In reality Republicans don’t like legislating to keep the internet egalitarian as they see it as ‘the nanny state’ sticking its nose into the free market, if ISPs want to charge for content then so be it they say.

Democrats argue that if innovators such as Facebook had had to pay to get online and get the same level of service as bigger corporate rivals they might not be where they are now.

There are things which can be done to protect small business. For example, each content provider regardless of size can be given a chunk of data for free before charges for traffic begin to stack up.

YouTube would then have to pay for the enormous amount of traffic it sends (how it would pay, no one is quite sure) whereas a smaller business would still be within its pre-defined limit.

One interesting thing to note in this debate is that at present there isn’t a single case of an ISP successfully getting a provider to pay for prioritisation. Although it could be that both parties are waiting for appropriate guidelines to be in place before actioning any pacts like this.

Ultimately there will need to be a solution to help ISPs manage the enormous growth in traffic mainly, from video based services. The future growth of IPTV services will cement this issue.

Will broadband providers get the right to have the final say on what they transmit and how they transmit it? Or will consumers, internet users and providers of content have the rights they currently enjoy and be able to connect to each other without having to negotiate a minefield of rules, regulations and prioritisation rights?

If the wishes of some ISPs come out on top then the internet as an online ecosystem supporting SME, innovation and competition will be damaged. The result would be an Internet which is not subject to the wishes of its billions of individual users but one where more control is handed to the telecoms giants. Small innovators and competition won’t disappear but things might just get a little bit harder.

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Neil Hawkins is a contributing editor for consumer information site Choose (follow @choosenet). He specialises in covering broadband industry debates for the home media section, as well as commentary on market research and consumer rights issues - find more on choose.net.