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Control the ISPs

May 2012

I would normally be amongst the last to suggest any increase in state control; I generally disapprove of interference with what we do and I am keen to encourage us all to be grown up and look after ourselves.  No nanny state for me, please.

However, I’m beginning to think that we might soon need some sort of supervision of our internet service providers (ISPs); they are getting away with too much at the moment.

We need to recognise that the internet is becoming so central to the way we get through the day, that it is fast becoming a utility, like power, or water; if you were designing a Monopoly board now you might well include an ISP as one of the utilities.

Even those who don’t use it personally are affected by it one way or another, but the charges made for supplying the service are almost completely unregulated; as users, we are at the unfettered mercy of the ISPs, both in terms of price we have to pay and the level of service we receive.  The opportunities for having our pockets picked by them are just too numerous.

For example, if internet usage in your area becomes heavy, they will slow it right down for a while.  That way they have to deliver less data, which saves them money.  When enough people give up, they’ll speed it up again, but they still they charge us all the same each month.  Equally, the chance that you ever receive the advertised speed for downloads is very slight, but you’ll be offered no discount, and if you have the nerve to download more data than they like, they’ll punish you by slowing down your connection.

Can you imagine electricity suppliers getting away with that?  Well, they wouldn’t, because those suppliers have statutory obligations to keep them relatively honest, and the system works.

I think that ISPs overcharge and underserve us, just as the power suppliers no doubt would if they were not under close statutory control.  The price we pay for using the internet is already much too high, compared to the cost of delivery; not content with that, the ISPs are even now beginning to discuss trying to charge publishers for putting information onto the system, as well as charging the likes of us to take it out. Heads they win, tails we lose.

I realise that huge infrastructure costs are involved in providing the internet, but I’m also about as sure as I can be that being an ISP is as close to having a licence to print money as you’ll find anywhere at the moment. 

The worm is turning a little; an enterprising chap in America has just taken AT&T, a giant ISP, to court and won $850 from them in compensation for the reduction in service they imposed on him without reducing the price he paid (read about it here in the Washington Post).

AT&T is appealing, but it seems unlikely they will win, which could open the floodgates for many thousands of similar claims.  AT&T already seems concerned about this prospect, because their latest consumer agreement specifically prohibits the customers from ganging together into a massive Class Action lawsuit.

I would normally want leave the market to sort this sort of thing out, but given how central the internet is becoming to us all, I do think that it will shortly need to be managed the way other utilities are.  To keep them all honest, something has to happen.