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The Issue...

The internet is becoming more popular and consumers are using more sophisticated high-bandwidth services, particularly video services. This can result in congestion on many networks, resulting in slow speeds and a frustrating experience for consumers.

Network providers are responding to the issue in a variety of ways, including by introducing data caps to manage the amount of data used by an individual consumer and introducing traffic management policies in which they may prioritise traffic by type (eg video, peer-to-peer), charge either the consumer of the content provider or both for guaranteed bandwidth, or block or degrade the quality of certain content.

While traffic management potentially offers some benefits to consumers there are also concerns that consumers do not understand these practices and so are unable to exert proper consumer choice, and that prioritising some services or types of traffic over others could reduce long-term consumer choice and have a detrimental impact on those services that cannot afford to pay for prioritisation, including possibly some public services.

There are also some concerns that the technology used for traffic management could have implications for privacy and freedom of speech, as it involves analysis of internet traffic in order to decide how to manage that traffic. 

Our Objective...

To identify, and encourage regulators, policy makers and industry to address, the consumer and citizen interests in the debate about net neutrality and traffic management.

Relevant Links... 

Video of the seminar held on 7th September 2010 the Panel, in partnership with Polis, the LSE media thinktank, organised a seminar bringing together academics, government officials and consumer and industry representatives to debate the citizen and consumer perspective.

Response to BEREC’s draft guidelines on net neutrality and transparency, November 2011

Response to Ofcom discussion paper Traffic management and 'net neutrality',Sept 2010

Response to EC consultation on the open internet and net neutrality in Europe, Sept 2010

Summary of the discussion at the Panel.POLIS Net Neutrality Seminar, Sept 2010

Speech by Anna Bradley at the Westminster eForum Seminar - Net Neutrality in the UK, Sept 2010

Our Current Position...

The debate as it is currently interpreted by Ofcom has been cast too narrowly. It focuses primarily on the potential benefits and risks to consumers in the short term, and the consumer remedies that could be put in place to mitigate those risks. However, there are also potential risks to consumers' long term interests, as well as important citizen issues to consider. Depending on how the market develops, these issues could result in consumer and citizen detriment in the future.

The focus on the consumer element of the net neutrality debate results in an over-reliance on the role of transparency. There are a number of limitations to transparency for both consumers and citizens. Transparency relies on consumers being able to understand and compare information about traffic management, weigh it up against other information relevant to their purchasing decision, and potentially switch their communications provider. If successful, transparency facilitates individual consumer choice. However, taken together individual choices, while appropriate for the people concerned, may not result in outcomes that are beneficial for society as a whole.

There is very little research available from the UK, or elsewhere, that looks into the way consumers and citizens make decisions about broadband services and the extent to which they understand the information provided to them about such services. It is not possible to understand the impact of information about traffic management in isolation. It is important that Ofcom takes into account the way consumers make decisions and use information about broadband generally, to ensure that any remedies are useful to people in the round.

In considering how best to present information to consumers Ofcom should bear in mind that consumers may find it useful to have positive commitments about the content and services they will definitely be able to access and when, rather than information about services they may or may not be able to use. The advertisement of ‘up to' broadband speeds is an example of the latter approach that can cause confusion among consumers.

Small businesses are likely to experience many of the same issues as consumers, and Ofcom should consider the potential impact on this group.

Existing evidence of consumer harm or value due to traffic management practices might not be forthcoming. Lack of evidence does not necessarily mean lack of harm; traffic management is an emerging phenomenon. Ofcom should frame policy with an understanding of what future harms might be, so that we do not unintentionally promote or encourage them and hopefully make them less likely to occur.

Ofcom should therefore actively monitor the development of this market to identify any emerging consumer or citizen issues and take early action to mitigate these issues. Action could take the form of some kind of minimum quality of service or universal ‘must-carry' obligation if developments in the market threaten important citizen goals, such as access to online public services. 

Our Impact...

  • The Panel's activity helped to focus the debate on the perspective and interests of citizens and consumers. This was a move away from an industry focused debate. In particular, the Panel successfully raised the citizen elements of the debate and highlighted some of the issues with an over-reliance on transparency, both issues which subsequently became part of the mainstream debate.
  • The Panel's activity influenced Ofcom's approach to this area. In particular, Ofcom gave considerable attention to considering the most appropriate approach to transparency and committed to undertaking research to understand how consumers use information in this area and the implications for information about information on traffic management.
  • The Panel's activity also influenced the approach of industry stakeholders, encouraging them to take a more thoughtful and comprehensive approach to consumer information in this area.  

Future Action to be Taken...

The Panel will continue to champion the interests of citizens and consumers in this debate. 

>> Our Actions, Outputs and Stakeholder Engagement