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by James Perrin on 20th April 2011
The man credited with the idea of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has spoken about web neutrality, traffic management and regulation. We take a look at the issue and what Sir Tim has to say about it.
The controversial issue has reared its head this side of the Atlantic, as the UK government have given Sir Tim the task of negotiating an agreement between Internet Service Providers and content firms amid fears of a two tear internet, according to the BBC.
This is the belief that all web traffic should be treated equally; however ISP’s argue that they need to manage the growing volume of online traffic, and to do that it is believed companies like AOL and Virgin Media are considering ways to control traffic. For example, asking content providers to pay to get their traffic prioritised on a network, sparking a two tier internet fear from content providers.
This basically means that the open World Wide Web as we know it will evolve to a much less open market with much more regulation and dictation on the sites you can and can’t visit. One way of looking at this is like shopping in a town centre. As we know it, you will be able to walk where you like, looking at all shops on every street, alley or lane.
The argument is that with a two tier system, only certain people will be allowed access to certain streets, alleys and lanes. At the moment, as a law abiding citizen, you wouldn’t walk into your town centre and be denied access to certain streets as we live in an open and democratic society. Well this is what Sir Tim is arguing, and an over-regulated web will deny certain people that access, which Sir Tim believes is now a human right.
Managing the Traffic
On the face of it, it is very hard to disagree with him. However, as mentioned this is a controversial issue and there are conflicting opinions. So what is wrong with wanting a free, open and neutral web? Nothing, but as traffic increases it isn’t as simple as that.
From the perspective of ISP’s, the overriding feeling is that they should be free to manage their networks. However the issue is that this should only be to manage traffic and deal with congestion and not to prioritise and discriminate content providers.
Going back to our high street shopping analogy, the issue of overcrowded high streets is dealt with by local authorities. They control the number of houses and ultimately the number of people that live in towns, therefore, the issue of an overcrowded high street is regulated to a certain degree. You would never get a case where a street is so over packed that certain people would be prevented from accessing certain streets to allow stricter controls for authorities.
The issue of neutrality will always remain a controversial one, not just with ISP’s, but also those who are directing the traffic at the moment, the search engines. The hegemonic power they possess over users looking for direction will always remain strong. However whilst search engines are in a position to control and profit (in an incredibly lucrative way), they also prioritise the user experience by providing accurate and relevant search results.
If they decide that brands should get more exposure, they can tweak their algorithm to accommodate this – just as Google has done. If they want to remove certain sites from their results entirely, again, they are free to do so. Online consumers can vote with their feet and use alternative methods of navigating the Internet, but whilst Google et al control what we see and we continue to use them as a primary source, they hold all the cards.
For ISP’s it looks as though the same may be happening, as traffic volume increases, they want to monetise from content providers, and not just deal with congestion. Therein lies the problem, open democratic societies and capitalist cultures share a symbiotic relationship, and when someone is in a position of power (the ISP’s) money is to be made.
Therefore, Sir Tim has the unenviable task of negotiating between ISP’s and content providers, and has explained that if they can’t come up with a way of self-regulating then the government should step in with legislation. This is an inevitable consequence when something gets too big and the big players can’t act responsibly enough.
Sir Tim’s utopian picture of a free and neutral web is compromised as traffic increase – a degree of regulation must be needed as the volume of traffic rises, however it is up to the ISP’s to act responsibly and deal with congestion in a non-discriminatory way.