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A Superhighway Code?

September 2012

What would you say if your telephone company wanted to charge you extra for receiving calls from their competitors, or rationed your use of your phone at busy times, without refund, because their systems are inadequate?  Fairly irritated, I’ll be bound.  But that’s just what is going on in the world of the internet.

It all revolves around the issue of whether or not an Internet Service Provider (ISP) should simply be a conduit to the internet, or if it should it be allowed a measure of control over what you look at and how you see it.  Perhaps you didn’t realise they have this power.  Nonetheless, at present, they can slow down your service at busy times (rather than build more capacity) and block your access to any site they don’t like (or see as a competitor).  This sounds odd if you compare it with the electricity industry; you expect your electricity company to provide you with access to the national grid, no matter what you want to do with your electricity or how much you need.

The problem is that many ISPs are far more than just providers of a technical service; they are major publishers as well (news, films, TV and so forth).  Hence my suspicion that they will tend to slow down or even block competitive content from other publishers.  Indeed, I have long believed that powerful ISPs will seek to develop a two tier internet, in which we have to pay extra for unfettered access.

The industry is, of course, very lightly regulated, and partly in an attempt to avoid any serious regulation some of the major players have just produced a Code of Conduct.  What they’ve come up with is well-meaning document claiming to guarantee something called “full internet access”, whatever that is.  BT and O2 are in favour, but Virgin and Vodafone are against it; so the big hitters of the industry are split down the middle. 

I suspect that what Virgin mostly doesn’t like is the suggestion in the Code that they should be forbidden from calling their service “internet access” if any legal content is blocked, and be forced to admit any restrictions on speed they impose.  I think most users would be surprised at just how much of this goes on, behind the scenes.

You can download the Code by clicking here and make your own mind up.  For my part, I think I am coming down on Virgin’s side, for the moment.  Not because I disapprove of a young industry trying to install some ethics, but because their efforts are so full of get-out-of-jail cards as to be more or less pointless, at least from the perspective of us users.

For example, the code promises that an ISP will provide “full internet access” unless it has to impose “reasonable traffic management practices”.  This means, in effect, that it will give you full access to the internet if it suits them to, but not if it doesn’t, or if their systems are inadequate and are not up to handling the demand.  The code itself lists seven different reasons they can slow us down, and admits there may be more.  This is a notoriously technical and arbitrary business for laymen to understand, let alone monitor, and still leaves the ISPs wholly in charge of reducing their service levels whenever they want, but still charging us the same amount and not breaching the Code.

The fact is that this Code of Practice is a tacit acknowledgment that the industry cannot keep up with the demand and is happy that way; a lovely position for them, but a frustrating one for us.  If I were writing the Code, I think I would start by saying that if an ISP cannot set up an operation that can cope with peaks of demand (like the electricity suppliers) then they should not be allowed to compete on the same terms with those that do.

So, rather than a code of practice that forces them to document their inability to cope, how about one that forces them to provide the service they promised us?


Download the Code of Conduct from here