The net neutrality debate could be emerging on the UK horizon but the message here is don’t mess around too much; it wouldn’t take much for consumers to switch ISPs.
New research from MoneySupermarket has indicated UK consumers are pretty sensitive when it comes to the idea of the open internet. This is a debate which has certainly captured the imagination of the US, though the UK has largely been shielded by its inclusion in the European Union and rules being written in Brussels. With Brexit looming large, it is possible the UK would no longer be answerable to BEREC (Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications) and free to decide its own course down the net neutrality road.
But the message from MoneySupermarket is simple; becoming too authoritarian on what content consumers can access and they will leave pretty sharpish. 64% of respondents would switch ISPs if blocks were put in place, with one in four specifying the blocking of porn as a reason to leave. Right now the status quo is holding solid, with the telcos largely only blocking requested and illegal content, though Brexit could change this.
By leaving the Union the UK is giving up the right to influence any new policies. Therefore, if it remains as part of BEREC it would have to comply with rules it has no influence over, Emily Thompson of MoneySupermarket points out. This would contradict the rationale of Brexit in the first place, though in the pursuit of a healthy relationship with Europe, the rules might have to be swallowed. Having the power to write the rules which govern the land is something which every government around the world would want, therefore staying in BEREC seems unlikely.
“While the dialogue regarding net neutrality in the UK is relatively low-key, it has controversially been repealed in the US, suggesting that it could become a much bigger issue once Brexit is finalised and we look at rethinking European legislation,” said Thompson. “For now, ISPs need to decide what’s in the best interest of their customers: eschewing the current net neutrality laws to reduce competition or getting on the side of the consumer and keeping the internet fair and equal.”
One of the areas which will come under scrutiny should the UK and BEREC part ways is net neutrality. We have already seen how divisive this debate has become in the US, with California introducing its own state level rules contradicting the FCC and potentially leading to a constitutional crisis. The scenario is slightly different in the UK, though the telcos will still want the opportunity to make more money.
Part of the reason net neutrality is such a big topic in the US is due to competition. A notable number of customers have limited options when selecting a broadband provider, which is not the case in the UK. Thanks to the UK being a small island and Openreach laying the foundations for broadband access, most customers have options when it comes to providers. ISPs cannot dictate the terms as much as across the pond and will have to be careful about blocking websites or promoting certain traffic for fear of losing customers to competitors.
However, executives might not be able to resist the temptation of making more money. The idea of a two-speed digital highway would be attractive to the telcos, monetizing the speed of delivery to the consumer. Experience is everything nowadays, and a slow-loading website might be enough for a consumer never to consider that curry house or wallpaper manufacturer ever again. We doubt the ISPs would go as far as holding the businesses to ransom by blocking websites who don’t pay or because a competitor pays for it, but it is a possibility.
Predicting which way the relationship with BEREC will go is a tricky one right now as it relies on the final deal the UK strikes with the European Union. We can’t imagine the UK Government will be happy about being told about how to regulate its own telco industry, irrelevant of how friendly the final terms are. It might not be too long before the net neutrality debate washes ashore; prepare for some propaganda from the telcos about why it is fair to create a digital toll-road to help fund the rollout of infrastructure.