What is ‘net neutrality’ and how does it affect UK broadband customers?

Could changes in the laws across the pond upset the UK market?

Monday, 28 October, 2019

One of the internet’s guiding principles has always been the democratic distribution of content.

Although individual connection speeds vary hugely, web hosting companies and service providers have always attempted to provide data to customers at the fastest speeds possible.

The same has been true for the Internet Service Providers who connect homes and offices to the information superhighway.

Whether you’re downloading an email attachment, streaming an All 4 series, playing Minecraft or Skyping a friend, these varied services should receive the same bandwidth.

ISPs can’t discriminate against (or be biased towards) certain companies, or even specific types of data.

This is a principle known as net neutrality, and it’s been part of the World Wide Web since it was devised by Sir Tim Berners-Lee in 1991.

However, it’s a principle which is coming under attack around the world.

Getting into a state

In the United States, net neutrality was cast aside in 2017, when the Federal Communications Commission repealed an outdated (yet still effective) 1930s Communications Act.

The FCC’s intention was to improve America’s uncompetitive internet sector, by encouraging broadband providers to offer more packages and develop wider networks.

However, the inevitable consequence of this change in the law is that American ISPs can now bias customer connections in favour of the services they (and their partners) offer.

If your internet service provider has done a deal with Amazon, you might find Amazon Prime Video content streams much faster than files from arch-rivals Netflix or Hulu.

It’s easy to see how this could be abused by ISPs, creating an unequal playing field for other content and service providers.

Imagine if you could only play online games from Steam, or only upload video files onto Facebook, because your ISP was throttling access to other platforms.

While the ISPs were naturally delighted by the FCC’s ruling, consumers and campaigners were aghast.

What’s the situation in the UK?

The UK is currently bound by stringent EU regulations regarding net neutrality.

These stipulate that broadband providers can’t favour certain websites or services. Nor can they discriminate against specific types of internet traffic to gain a commercial advantage.

ISPs operating in the UK have to explain their approach to traffic management in customer contracts.

If they attempt to breach these principles, industry regulator Ofcom will identify a need for enforcement.

Ofcom also encourages customers to raise any neutrality concerns directly with their ISP.

Will Brexit affect this?

At the time of writing, it appears we’ll still be bound by EU laws for a while at least.

And regardless of how Brexit plays out, there’s little appetite among politicians or the public to follow America’s example and abolish the level playing field.

For one thing, our broadband market is hugely competitive. The sheer volume and variety of deals listed on this website is testament to that – as is the number of companies in the market.

For another, the British sense of fair play and our love of the underdog might turn consumers against a pronounced bias towards one company’s services over another firm’s offerings.

Plus, the vast majority of UK ISPs are already signed up to a voluntary code supporting an open internet.

Indeed, the greatest pressure for change is likely to come from large service providers with enough muscle to negotiate preferential treatment from fixed and mobile broadband firms.

Yet given the UK’s history of garden-shed entrepreneurs and successful home-spun technology ventures, it’s doubtful there would be much support from anyone else.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!