The first significant Net Neutrality debate to take place in the UK was held today at Westminster. Chaired by former trade minister Alun Michael and the Conservative shadow trade minister Charles Hendry, the event attracted the chief Telecoms regulator and ministry policy chief, a clutch of industry representatives, and a sprinkling of members of both houses.
What emerged from the sessions is that 'Neutrality' is one of those incomprehensible American phenomenons, from which we've mercifully escaped. Your reporter was one of those invited to give a briefing - having reported on the issue from both sides of the pond - and said as much. But in the expectation that this would be the heretic view, rather than the near unanimous consensus opinion.
Summing up, Michael described the clamour for pre-emptive technical legislation as "extreme... unattractive and impractical".
It was, he said, "an answer to problems we don't have, using a philosophy we don't share".
That wasn't the only surprise.
Interestingly, the event was snubbed by Google, which in the USA has done so much to stoke the "Neutrality" crusade. Google has thrown lobbying money and muscle at Congress, but at Westminster, declined an invitation to speak. It sent a representative who told a fellow attendee that the panel was "biased".
Stranger still, and this should cause conspiracy theorists some confusion - the Forum was sponsored by AT&T. That's the AT&T that Neutralists insist doesn't want to talk about its nefarious plans to sabotage the internet. Well, here it was. Maybe AT&T never had any intention of doing what the Neutralists claimed it wanted to do - and it was all a huge misdirection. But Occam's Razor is never sufficient for conspiracy theorists, who simply create a new, and more elaborate narrative.
Overall, the debate was on another plane of technical and economic literacy to the hysteria served before Congress.
That doesn't mean the UK regulator is oblivious to sensitivities. OFCOM regards the markets as essentially different. There's more access competition here, and the UK doesn't have such as ancient cruft as the US distinction between an information provider and a telephony provider. Greater competition means a regulator can do what a regular should do, believes OFCOM, and let the market sort it out.
OFCOM's Douglas Scott reiterated that policy today. He said, however, he believed Neutrality wasn't a US-only debate. Neutrality issues were being pushed up the agenda by the emergence of time-critical applications (such as video), and the ability of equipment vendors to deliver a smarter network. He then demolished most of the reasons why OFCOM needed to get involved.
In the USA, "all bits is equal" is a mainstream view, in Europe, it isn't. The European framework permits ISP to prioritize packets by application, which the UK regulator regards as fine. A grey area, he suggested, was when an ISP offered MySpace a preferential Quality of Service deal, for a fee. Should the regulator constrain the fee?
Hand-off hands off
In his view, however, OFCOM had done well to leave things alone. He cited the example of concerns about T-Mobile's contract blocking VoIP calls last year. OFCOM was aware that rival network operators were striking deals with VoIP operators (3 UK now offers a packaging including Skype for £5 a month) and declined to intervene. T-Mobile has now responded with a VoIP tariff.
(It's largely irrelevant, but still worth noting, that T-Mobile has yet to block a VoIP call made by your reporter, which suggests that while it wants to discourage VoIP calls it can't afford to prevent them).
In that example, said Scott, OFCOM would probably have stepped in if all the operators were blocking VoIP.
Scott concluded by saying neutrality wasn't an issue, so long as customers could migrate to an alternative provider quickly and easily.
Speaker after speaker described the difficulty of painting the phantom called Neutrality. Most characterized it as a US-centric debate. Most were wary of prescriptive regulation, which had to be technical by nature, when no harm had been caused and the problem couldn't be described.
The Head of UK Telecoms Policy at the Department of Trade and Industry, Claire Hobson, said Neutrality was in danger of being an issue that's "flogged to death". She described the position as "relaxed but not comatose", and reiterated Douglas Scott's view that so long as people knew what deal they were getting, and could switch easily, "Neutrality" wasn't an issue.
And Americans characterize Europeans as regulation-happy? ®