Ofcom opens debate on net neutrality

24 June 2010

Ofcom today published a discussion paper on the practice of internet traffic management, a technique used by network operators and internet service providers (ISPs) to stem or accelerate the flow of traffic over the web.

This practice may allow network operators and ISPs to handle traffic more efficiently, to prioritise traffic by type, to guarantee bandwidth or to block or degrade the quality of certain content.

However, it has also led to concerns that network operators and ISPs could engage in anti-competitive behaviour and suppress the quality of content from provider services.

Ofcom has some existing powers and duties which could be applied to traffic management, for example, by requiring suppliers to be transparent about their traffic management practices. These will be strengthened by amended EU rules that will be transposed into UK law in 2011. In addition Ofcom has existing competition powers that may be relevant.

The purpose of today's paper is to open up a discussion on how these existing and future powers might be used to address traffic management concerns and what stance Ofcom should take on any potential anti-competitive discrimination.

It also raises questions about transparency and consumers' awareness of the traffic management policy of the broadband service they have paid for.

"New EU rules give regulators a clear responsibility to address the emerging issues around traffic management. The question is how Ofcom uses these and existing powers to further the interests of consumers, while supporting vibrant, innovative content production and network deployment," said Ofcom Chief Executive, Ed Richards.

"The internet is playing an increasingly central role in the lives of citizens, consumers and industry. It provides access to an ever growing range of content, applications and services that we have come to both expect and depend on. How this access is controlled by ISPs affects us all and is of wide reaching significance."

"At the heart of this discussion is how to ensure that traffic management practices are transparent and how to ensure that traffic management is not used for anti-competitive discrimination."

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is a concept based on the internet being a level playing field for internet traffic. There are several definitions, but all share a concern that traffic management by network operators and ISPs could lead to discrimination between different traffic carried over the internet.

What is happening in other countries?

In line with the growing significance of the internet and its increasingly central role in peoples' lives, international interest in 'net neutrality' and traffic management has increased significantly over the last two years. Other countries including the US, Canada, France, Norway and Sweden have adopted or are considering some form of regulatory requirements relating to traffic management. The European Commission is due to publish a consultation on the issue this summer.

Why is Ofcom involved?

Ofcom has existing powers and duties in this area and these will be strengthened by amended EU rules that will be transposed into UK law in 2011. These include potential powers to oblige operators to be transparent about the traffic management techniques that they put in place.

What happens next?

Ofcom is seeking preliminary views on the issues raised in its discussion paper. It will also conduct a series of roundtables with industry, citizen and consumer groups over the summer.

The closing date for responses is 9 September 2010.


NOTES FOR EDITORS1. Under section 3(1) of the Communications Act 2003, Ofcom has a duty to further the interests of citizens in relation to communications matters and to further the interests of consumers in relevant markets, where appropriate by promoting competition.