Expanding the Web: The case against net neutrality


  • Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs)
    should treat all web traffic equally. This means, in general, that ISPs
    may not block, slow down or speed up the transmission of any content
    or services. This is meant to promote an ‘open internet’: allowing users
    to access all content and services while ensuring low barriers to entry
    for innovative and new web applications.

  • The UK’s net neutrality rules derive from the European Union’s Open Internet Access Regulation 2015, which came into force in 2016 and has been retained in UK law post-Brexit. These rules mandate net neutrality with exceptions for technical, security and legal requirements.

  • Prior to the EU regulation, the UK relied on competition between ISPs, transparency and self-regulation to safeguard an open internet. This arrangement was acknowledged at the time, by the government, Ofcom and independent reviewers, to be effective. Acting of its own accord, the UK is unlikely to have introduced net neutrality regulations independently of the EU.

  • Net neutrality rules limit the ability of ISPs to: (1) effectively manage traffic when the network is congested; (2) develop innovative offerings for consumers and emerging technologies; or (3) reach deals with major content providers, such as Netflix, to contribute to network maintenance
    and expansion in exchange for priority access.

  • There is evidence that net neutrality reduces investment in telecommunications infrastructure. In addition to harming consumers,
    this undermines the government’s gigabit broadband and ‘levelling
    up’ goals.

  • An alternative to net neutrality is net diversity: allowing ISPs to decide
    how they operate their networks for their customers; enabling greater experimentation in product offerings and business models; and allowing
    ISPs to reach deals with large content providers to enable more
    investment in infrastructure. The possibility of ISPs adopting differing
    practices would allow for greater competition, innovation and the
    discovery of the approach most beneficial to consumers.

  • Divergence from EU rules is supported by ISPs including BT, Three
    and Virgin Media/O2 while content providers such as Google, Amazon
    and Netflix have opposed reform and, in particular, being forced to pay
    ISPs for access to users.

  • Net neutrality advocates object that its abandonment could lead to
    anticompetitive behaviour by ISPs, such as blocking or slowing content
    or overcharging for faster access. Ordinary competitive pressures
    should be expected to prevent such behaviour, and if that fails, it could
    be controlled by ex post competition enforcement by Ofcom and the
    CMA. There is no requirement for ex ante net neutrality regulation.

  • Ofcom is reviewing the UK’s net neutrality framework in response to
    growing internet demand, new technologies and congestion-sensitive
    applications that may justify prioritisation. Although Ofcom has proposed
    new guidance, the underlying rules are a matter for the government
    and Parliament.

  • Innovation, investment and consumer interest would be served by a
    substantial abandonment of net neutrality regulations.

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Matthew Lesh is the IEA's Director of Public Policy and Communications. He regularly appears on television and radio, and has written dozens of opinion and feature pieces for print and online publications such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Spectator. He has provided extensive commentary and written various papers and submissions about the Online Safety Bill. He is also a Fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and Institute of Public Affairs.

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