The government has given its tacit backing for ISPs to tier the delivery of web traffic, in a move that some see as a major blow for net neutrality.
Communications minister Ed Vaizey argued at a conference today that the government is advocating a "light touch" policy on the internet that will give ISPs the freedom to prioritise chosen content.
"The internet has been responsible for an unprecedented level of innovation. This is a model that the British government wishes to protect. A lightly regulated internet is good for business, good for the economy and good for people," he said.
"The government is no fan of regulation and we should intervene only when it is clearly necessary to deliver important benefits for consumers."
Vaizey claimed that the government has based its approach on openness, transparency and the ability for ISPs to innovate and invest as they see fit.
This essentially means that ISPs can decide how they deliver content as long as they are clear on the extent of any traffic management policies and that internet users are able to access legal content or services.
Vaizey believes that there is still sufficient competition in the market to provide people with a range of options from their ISP.
The move will disappoint net neutrality advocates, who have long argued that any tiering of internet traffic will stifle innovation and affect fair access to the internet.
"Removing net neutrality is likely to reduce innovation and people's ability to exercise freedom of speech," said Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group.
However, Angus Finnegan, head of telecoms at law firm Osborne Clarke, said that UK laws could allow operators to introduce different levels of service without end users being dramatically affected.
"Even without any regulation ensuring net neutrality, the existing European and UK rules should provide adequate protection if we go down this road of tiered internet traffic," he said.
"For the consumer, the new EU rules will ensure transparency. For the digital business community, existing telecoms and competition rules will prevent dominant players from abusing their market position."
The Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) welcomed Vaizey's comments, agreeing that a market-based approach to the delivery of internet traffic will be beneficial to all.
"ISPs use traffic management techniques to effectively and efficiently run and manage networks for the benefit of all users. This enables ISPs to prioritise time-sensitive applications, such as VoIP, at peak times," said a spokesperson.
"ISPA believes that openness and transparency is key. A number of ISPA members already provide consumers with clear information on traffic management practices, and we expect to see this improve."
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