It's best to go with the flow

Pressure to regulate traffic threatens the neutrality that the net was built on

Bollocks. That was the word the chief exec of Virgin Media chose to describe a debate that has captured the minds of US internet users for the past several years. He was referring to network neutrality: the concept that internet service providers (ISPs) should not be able to discriminate against the data that flows across their networks.

ISPs are under a great deal of pressure. The government wants them to be able to deliver faster broadband connections to UK customers, and this will take major investment from the big players such as BT. Increasing political pressure means they are also suggesting that ISPs should be trying to regulate the content that travels across these networks - stopping their customers from illicitly sharing files, or blocking illegal content such as images of child sex abuse. At the same time ISPs complain that new services, such as the BBC's on-demand iPlayer service, are slowing down the network, while customers grumble that their internet speeds are nothing like those advertised when they signed up.

Over the coming months, these complaints are likely to come to a head. The founding father of the worldwide web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has called network neutrality "essential" - for the free market, for democracy and for science. His analysis, that network neutrality is what has driven the internet's rapid pace of innovation, is shared by many others.

From email and eBay to Skype, Facebook and more, applications have mushroomed because all it took to innovate was a computer and a connection. Providers of news services and commercial applications didn't need to factor in strategic players in the distribution network. The wires were dumb: they could not hinder, they could not censor. Network neutrality greatly lowered the cost of innovation, in terms of both structural legwork and risk.

Lord Currie of Marylebone, the chairman of the telecoms regulator, Ofcom, has called the network neutrality debate "confused". Ofcom's take is that, unlike in the US, the UK has a competitive market for internet service provision. This means that if Virgin Media starts charging content providers for fast access to its customers, or slows down the traffic of content providers who refuse to pay, customers who don't like it can move to another provider. And if large providers abuse their market position by throttling innovation on the web, the competition authorities can move in to rectify the situation.

But is this enough? Faced with the choice between cheaper connections, and an open and free internet that comes at a price, will enough UK customers choose to do the decent thing and invest in the internet's future? Or will we be happy to tune in and drop out of iPlayer, YouTube and all the other services big enough to pay the ISPs' levies - and bollocks to the innovators who might have been?

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!